By Niresh Eliatamby –
Medical researchers who are hunting for treatments for Coronavirus or Covid-19 that has afflicted nearly half a million people worldwide should take a long hard look at South Asia. While much of the world is battling huge outbreaks of the pandemic, South Asia has led a charmed life – so far.
As of 26th March 2020, a total of 472,907 people globally have tested positive for Covid-19, of whom 21,315 have died (source: Worldometers.info). The Far East, Middle East, Europe and North America are all struggling to cope with the pandemic, with South America and Australia-New Zealand somewhat less so.
But in the eight South Asian nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives, there have so far been a paltry 2,026 positive cases, with a meagre 28 deaths (source: Worldometers.info).
Let that sink in. A region that is home to 1.9 billion people comprising 25% of the world’s population, many of whom live much below the global poverty line, has registered only 0.43% of Covid-19 cases up to now. The mortality rate is even lower, with only 0.13% of global deaths from Covid-19 being in South Asia. Four of the eight nations haven’t suffered a single death yet.
Only three of the eight nations have registered even 100 cases each. In fact, many cases in these eight nations are imported ones, being foreign tourists and returning migrant workers who contracted the disease in Europe, China or the Middle East. The rate of Community Spread has been astonishingly low and quite baffling. One would think that the squalid, overcrowded conditions in the megacities of India and Bangladesh would have been a hellish breeding ground for Covid-19. Yet, this has not been so, three months into the outbreak as shown in the table below.
When one considers that the region has a 6,800 km border with China to the north and Iran to the west, nations that are among the hardest hit by this pandemic, the lack of success of Covid-19 in South Asia is baffling. That’s a very long land border that Covid-19 should have crossed with ease, although of course traffic across the Chinese border isn’t in huge volumes – this isn’t the Autobahn. India shares a 3,488 km border with China (the exact number is disputed due to border disputes); Nepal has a 1,414 km border with China; Pakistan, which has had the largest number of the region’s positive cases, shares a 1,432 km land border with Iran and China (disputed); and Bhutan a 470 km border with China. Granted, none of them border Hubei Province, the original epicenter of the pandemic, but that’s still a very long border.
South Asia’s governments cannot be said to have been particularly proactive in taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus, although of course definitely more so than the United States and Europe. For example, India’s 21-day lockdown of the entire nation only went into effect on 25th March. That’s a full two months that the virus had to spread in the Subcontinent. Yet, in comparison to Europe, the USA and China, Covid-19 has had little impact on the health of South Asia.
Many theories have gone viral as to South Asia’s apparent immunity, from its climate of heat and humidity, to ingredients in a common soup named Rassam, to the generally spicy food, to the toughness of South Asian people’s immune systems due to frequent exposure to many exotic diseases. Yet, none of these theories appears practical. The entire population of South Asia does not consume rassam as the different cultures in the region have different dietary habits. Spicy food is found in other regions of the world. Another theory is that there may be underreporting of cases due to a lack of testing. But this is unlikely since hospitals simply haven’t had thousands of people falling sick across the region.
It would be quite doubtful indeed to make any claim that hygiene habits in South Asia are more healthful than in the rest of the world. Neither can it be said that authorities have been remarkably successful at implementing social distancing. For example, Sri Lanka’s President publicly complained that his attempts to implement social distancing were hindered by tens of thousands of the country’s Buddhists taking advantage of the closure of schools to make a ritual pilgrimage up the holy mountain of Adam’s Peak; and two weekends during which thousands gathered at cricket grounds to watch schools play their annual rivalries of cricket ‘Big Matches’.
Neither is the number of cases accelerating in South Asia to any great extent, in contrast to Europe and the United States. In fact, it isn’t at all clear whether South Asian nations have been successful at flattening the curve because the curve in those countries isn’t large enough to detect a significant flattening.
If I were to hazard a guess, I would guess that Covid-19 doesn’t thrive in the hot and humid environmental conditions in South Asia. A few early studies appear to point in that direction. Every organism has a particular temperature range that it thrives at – polar bears and penguins love the cold; camels prefer the heat. The same goes for plants – coconut trees and rice prefer the tropics. Many bacteria and viruses also have the same constraints. Perhaps Covid-19 dislikes the tropics (although Brazil has reported 2,554 cases and Indonesia 790 cases, both tropical countries. Malaysia has also reported a significant increase in the past several days).
The only other region of the world that appears to have had comparable success versus Covid-19 so far is Africa. However, it could be argued that Africa does not have the airline connectivity to China and Europe that South Asia does, and hence would probably be the last region that the virus would spread to in significant numbers.
Perhaps I am speaking too soon and the pandemic may spread significantly in South Asia in the coming weeks. But after watching the region’s charmed life for more than two months, I think it warrants closer investigation by more qualified experts as to why Covid-19 doesn’t seem to like South Asia.
*Niresh Eliatamby, MBA, LL.M., counts three decades in journalism and mass communications