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Racing to Respond to the COVID-19 Crisis in South Asia

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Workers unload cartons containing face masks and face shields supplied by UNICEF to state health department, Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. © UNICEF/UN0463116/Altaf Ahmad

The latest wave of COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on children and their families

Countries across South Asia are experiencing a new and deadly surge of COVID-19. The region, home to almost 2 billion people, now accounts for half of all new, known infections globally. Every second, more than three new cases are recorded.

Mortality is also rising sharply. With every minute that passes, three more people in the region lose their lives to the virus.

Hospitals are overwhelmed, there is an acute lack of oxygen and other life-saving medical supplies, and there is a real risk of fragile health systems collapsing. In the countries that are being hardest hit, entire families are losing their lives to the virus.

The sheer speed and scale of infection is pushing health systems in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives to the brink – with fears that Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Afghanistan could face similar devastating surges. The speed of the virus is outstripping countries’ ability to treat patients and save lives.

During the first wave of the pandemic, an estimated 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers across South Asia died due to severe disruptions in essential health services. In almost all countries in the region, with the exception of Maldives and Bhutan, fewer than 1 in 10 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Very low levels of vaccination in most of the region mean that further COVID-19 surges remain a significant threat in the coming months, risking even greater tragic loss of life and further spread of the virus. In almost all countries in the region, apart from Maldives and Bhutan, fewer than 1 in 10 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

We must all step up to save lives and stop the virus from spiralling further in the region. None of us are safe until everyone is safe.

Situation Update: South Asia

On 18 May, the South Asia region alone accounted for 4,903 deaths, of which  4,529 occurred in India - the highest number of deaths ever recorded in a single country since the beginning of the pandemic.

Neighboring Nepal has experienced case positivity rates as high as 47 per cent and there are reports of nurses taking care of 20 critically ill patients on their own.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is recording new highs in deaths related to COVID-19 on a daily basis, and hospitals in the capital of Maldives are reaching full capacity. 

Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Afghanistan could all face similar devastating surges.

Impact on children and youth of South Asia

COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact children in the region. Latest data show increasing numbers of children are contracting the virus and falling ill with COVID-19 than ever before.

Equally concerning are the knock-on impacts of the new surge on children. Children are losing parents and caregivers to the virus, leaving many of them destitute, without parental care. In addition, as resources are diverted and services become saturated, the essential health services that children and mothers rely on – including routine immunization services and treatment for diseases like pneumonia and malnutrition - are once more at risk of being compromised. Children are also becoming witnesses to scenes no child should see – which is taking an enormous toll on their mental health. In many South Asian countries, schools are either closed or at imminent risk of reclosing.

Join UNICEF in supporting lifesaving supplies and services to protect families and communities in South Asia UNICEF urgently needs support to protect children and their families from this deadly new surge of COVID-19 in South Asia. We're calling on the private sector, businesses, foundations, social impact investors, corporations and philanthropists to help prevent further loss of life and while building stronger health systems which can withstand future COVID-19 surges.

Your investment now is also an investment in the future – a legacy that will save countless lives the years ahead through stronger health systems. For example, improving access to oxygen therapy will also benefit 4.2 million children who suffer from pneumonia each year in low/middle-income countries. RT-PCR test machines will be used to identify not only COVID-19 but viruses such as TB, HIV, HPV and streptococcus.

The current situation is unlike anything we've seen before. We're redoubling our efforts to help. UNICEF and partners are on the ground responding urgently to keep children and their families healthy and protected from the reoccurring shocks and stresses of the pandemic.

Through COVAX, UNICEF has delivered over 14 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to South Asia.

To continue vaccinating against COVID-19, we are supporting governments to upgrade and build cold chain to store and transport vaccines safely.

In India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, we have provided concentrators and tanks, testing kits, PCR machines, ventilators, test kits, isolation centers, and other critical equipment in place.

We are making sure frontline health workers have PPEs and other protective gears to continue helping those in need. We are supporting governments to effectively and in real-time monitor, plan and respond to the rising COVID-19 infections.

We are making sure reaching families have access to trusted information on staying safe and are following all safety measures to prevent further spread of the virus.

We are increasing access to safe water and sanitation and providing cash assistance.

We are helping to keep children learning and providing expert mental health and protection support for children affected by the pandemic

But more support is urgently needed to save lives.