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South Asia dogged with poor health facilities, erosion of democratic rights: Report

By Our Representative

A recent report by multinational advocacy groups, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Bangkok, and South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), Kathmandu, “Human Rights in South Asia in Times of Pandemic”, has expressed concern that lack of basic health infrastructure has been one of the main reasons why the countries in the region are unable to fight Covid-19 crisis effectively.
Quoting data, the report says, “Bangladesh has 112 ICU beds and 400 ventilators for a population of about 165 million. Pakistan, a country of 220 million people, has a bed-to-population ratio of less than one per 1,000 when the recommended average by the World Health Organization (WHO) is five per 1,000.”
Pointing out that “the WHO also mandates a doctor to population of 1:1000, while in India it is 1:1,404”, the report states, “For people living in rural areas and completely dependent on government healthcare facilities, the doctor to patient ratio is abysmally low with 1:10,926.”
The report believes, “In South Asia faces public health challenges on a demographic and geographic scale that is unmatched in the world. The majority of the people depend on the public health system. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, with two-thirds of the world’s population living on less than USD 1/day, and have high infant mortality rates.”
Noting that things have worsened because of “the present condition of poor access to improved water and sanitation, poor maternal health and poor access to healthcare services”, the report says, “South Asian countries spend less than 3.2 percent of their GDP on health. As a consequence, South Asian countries do not have the capacity to protect the lives of people if Covid-19 spreads widely.”
In fact, the report says, instead of treating people humanely, South Asian states are using the current public health crisis “as a pretext to infringe upon people’s rights by imposing on their fundamental freedoms and civic space.”
It says, “There has been an increase in the use of fake news; abuse of security forces; arrests, fines, detentions; abusive acts against doctors by the community people, killings, racist behaviour, increased violations and abuses against the freedom of expression through the controlling of digital spaces of human rights defenders.”
The report says, “Several South Asian countries have controlled the flow of public information in order to contain fear and scepticism related to the virus and the devastation that it may bring. The diversity of responses from South Asian countries shows a disproportionate and uncoordinated approach in the region despite the creation of the Covid-19 Emergency Fund.”
Thus, “The governments of India and Pakistan have used repressive laws to control the flow of information and misinformation in an attempt to mute peoples’ legitimate expressions of doubt and queries in relation to the actual situation of Covid-19 within their country. This has led to increased speculation and misinformation about Covid-19.”
Based on virtual interaction with experts across the region, the report quotes John Samuel, President of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies in India, as especially objecting to “a new kind of legitimacy of state apparatus because of insecurity and sense of fear in the society”, adding, “Although Covid-19 is a public health emergency, it seems to of had the effect of a political emergency.”
Objecting to the use of the ‘war’ metaphor, the expert states, it “is generally used to promote or incite nationalistic and jingoistic feelings, that has been applied in the response to Covid-19 throughout South Asia. It has allowed the police and security forces, including the armed forces, more power than ever before and has allowed them to enforce lockdowns.”
The report quotes Pradeep More, deputy director, Dalit Foundation, India, raising concerns regarding Dalit women and children, who, he believes, “will now be facing extreme marginalisation due to ‘social distancing’.” Objecting to the term ‘social distancing’, he said, instead, ‘physical distancing’ should be used, noting, Dalits in India “have long been considered ‘untouchables’ and have been facing social distancing for a long time.”

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