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Fighting COVID-19 surges in South Asia

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A COVID-19 emergency response food distribution. UNDP is working with its partners in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka to muster the resources to prevent more unnecessary death and suffering. © UNDP Bangladesh/Fahad Kaizer

The health and socioeconomic inequalities inherent in the COVID-19 pandemic are creating even wider gaps between the haves and the have nots.

As wealthy countries expand their vaccination programmes and begin to emerge from lockdown, a second deadly wave of the virus — along with more contagious and dangerous varients — has hit South Asia, and in many cases is overwhelming efforts to contain and prevent it.

UNDP is working with its partners in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka to muster the resources to prevent more unnecessary death and suffering.

Because the pandemic’s socio-economic consequences are widespread, a key part of UNDP’s support involves expanding social protection and working with partners to protect and create jobs and to support essential frontline workers.

UNDP in India is working with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and state governments, to ensure uninterrupted oxygen supplies especially in the remote areas. In partnership with the Government of Japan, UNDP is setting up eight oxygen generation plants in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura that will benefit around 1,300 beds. UNDP also been engaged in the mammoth task of training to personnel on using the Co-WIN (Winning over COVID) software, for individualized tracking of COVID-19 vaccination — especially for those who are not usually engaged in routine immunization programme.

As a result of UNDP’s support, so far, more than 818,000 state and district workers have been trained, including more 1,900 in the private sector.

The nations in the region that are more heavily dependent on tourism, such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, face specific challenges.

Nepal [SK1] [SA2] has been hit from many angles by COVID-19. Its tourism industry has been decimated, the country is struggling because it doesn’t have enough resources to treat the disease, and many of its citizens who work abroad have had to return home, depriving them and their families of money to support themselves.

UNDP Nepal’s response supports the healthcare system, with support for quarantine facilities and launching delivery robots to help frontline workers, as well as providing advice and training on crisis management.

Even simple upgrades in infrastructure for villagers who’ve had to return home because they no longer have work can have double the benefits, making life slightly easier for those who are struggling to feed their families, and providing much needed work.

“I used the daily wages that I made constructing this trail to buy medicines for my husband.” — Ijhi Maya, Nepalese villager

As Nepal’s districts bordering India continued to witness large numbers of returning migrants, the local authorities called for help for COVID-19 screening. UNDP Nepal provided 22,000 rapid antigen test kits and is providing safe transport to holding centres for those who’ve tested positive

Because of a swift and effective initial response, Bhutan has been able to avoid the worst health effects of coronavirus, however those who work in the tourism industry and particularly in the informal sector, have been hit hard by lockdowns.

UNDP is supporting the government as it embarks on a many-faceted recovery programme, which includes encouraging entrepreneurship and creating new jobs, working with marginalized groups, such as survivors of of gender based violence, young people affected by COVID, persons with disabilities and thinking about a greener economy for the country — which involves more solar power, training and up-to-date skills for those working in tourism, and improving food security, by encouraging Bhutanese farmers to grow more crops.

It also worked with the government to develop the Bhutan Vaccine System building on similar efforts in India and Indonesia.

Its support helped to get IT equipment to health workers who were able to vaccinate more than 93 percent of eligible adults and it trained more than 2,100 health workers in how to register and screen patients, as well as follow up reporting.

COVID-19 has not just placed Pakistani lives at risk, it’s also threatened the country’s social and economic structures. More than 27 million Pakistanis work in the informal sector and it accounts for a major share of the national economy.

They need urgent help to sustain their families.

UNDP’s programmes are helping Pakistanis keep food on the table, especially in marginalized communities. Essential food packages also include masks and hand sanitizers.

Remote work has taken on new significance during the pandemic and has exposed the inequalities in the digital divide. UNDP worked with the Bangladeshi government to make remote work more accessible for public servants, and especially for the legal system, which was able to process bail pleas without people having to go to courtrooms. Businesses also had to quickly adapt. UNDP worked with more than 5,000 small businesses as they adjusted to the new digital norms.

In what they describe as the 21st century’s “Chernobyl moment” the authors of the UN-commissioned Independent Report, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, say the pandemic has emphasized how fragile and interconnected our planet is. Describing it as “the worst combined health and socioeconomic crisis in living memory,” and “a catastrophe at every level,” the report says that there must be no more pandemics. It’s created a series of recommendations to provide a complete, and equitable, pandemic preparedness and response system that protects every person.

COVID-19 continues to show that there is virtually no level of inequity that it can’t expose — fewer than one in 100 people in lower income countries have received a first vaccine dose, and those living in poorer countries, and working in informal countries are at the back of the queue as far as social safety nets — UNDP will continue to focus its work on ensuring that the most vulnerable receive the support they need to support themselves through the pandemic and to design present and future societies that are durable and equitable and align with the Sustainable Development Goals.