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The Pandemic and Economic Fallout in South Asia

Challenges and the Way Forward

Coherent national strategies, backed by regional cooperation efforts, offer a way forward for economic recovery in South Asia, which is rapidly becoming the next COVID-19 global hotspot. Challenges and policies relating to macroeconomics, health, economic sectors, stimulus measures, and reforms, which are all crucial for the region’s recovery are discussed.

This article is an outcome of joint research undertaken by South Asian think tanks. An earlier version of the article was discussed at the webinar “COVID-19: South Asia’s Response,” 2 May 2020. The authors are grateful to Sabya Dutta, Director, Asian Confluence for organising the webinar, and to the participants for their useful comments. The views are authors’ own.

South Asia, the world’s most populous region, is rapidly becoming the next global hotspot for the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments across the region are faced with the grim calculus of trading off health for the economy which is in lockdown or partial lockdown. Coherent national strategies, backed by regional cooperation efforts, offer a way forward for economic recovery in South Asia.

South Asia faces two major challenges at this juncture. First, is to tackle the public health emergency related to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Saving lives and not overburdening under-developed health systems are important concerns of governments. Second, is to save the regional economy from an economic downturn and deep recession due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global and regional lockdown.

The present health cum economic crisis throws up some important issues for public policy in South Asia. If the spread of the virus and the consequent loss of life is minimised, either through newly invented vaccines or medicines, economies may rebound sharply. Countries are, therefore, heavily engaged in inventing the vaccines or exploring access to them once they are invented, as well as injecting countercyclical fiscal and monetary stimulus measures. Both pathways are critical to support possible recovery in South Asia in late 2020 and 2021.

The experience of some better-developed East Asian countries in managing COVID-19 offers some insights for South Asia (such as enforcement of individual quarantine, early border controls, mobilisation of industry and focused economic measures), but these need to be tailored to the circumstances of South Asian countries (Duchatel et al 2020). The subtle nuances relating to public policy choices to tackle the pandemic in South Asia have motivated us as an informal group of South Asian scholars to debate these issues and to write this article. It discusses challenges and policies relating to macroeconomics, health, economic sectors, stimulus measures, and reforms, which are all crucial for the region’s recovery.


Health hazard: COVID-19 has sparked both a public health emergency and an economic shock in South Asia. As of 2 August 2020, South Asia accounted for 13.17% of global cases, while the United States accounted for 26.38%, and the European Union for 7.92% (John Hopkins University & Medicine nd). On 15 April 2020, South Asia accounted for only 0.99% of the global cases. This suggests that Covid-19 cases in South Asia have increased rapidly over a period of three and a half months. Also, because of its underdeveloped health system, the public health crisis will likely be prolonged in South Asia. Furthermore, testing across South Asian countries remains inadequate in relation to needs (Table 1, p 14). Barring Bhutan, the rest of South Asia lags behind the East and South East Asian average significantly in terms of tests, hospital beds and public health expenditure. These differences in health outcome indicators may reflect different development policy priorities accorded to economic growth versus human development (including public health provision) in South Asia and East Asia. There is clearly a need for urgent public policy interventions to narrow the gaps in the health sector within South Asia.

Macroeconomy: South Asia has moved from the fastest-growing region in the world in 2019 to a slow-growth scenario in 2020. Many economies may face negative per capita income growth in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic (IMF 2020a). Furthermore, in its recent forecast, the World Trade Organization (WTO) indicated a fall in world trade between 13% and 32% in 2020, perhaps, the highest fall since the Great Depression of the 1930s (WTO 2020). In its June 2020 Global Economic Prospects, the World Bank indicated a very slow recovery of South Asia in 2021 with negative growth in several countries (Figure 1) (World Bank 2020a).

Economic sectors: All South Asian countries are suffering from the collapsing of trade, investment and tourism. Stock markets have tumbled and business confidence is vanishing. Daily life has been disrupted and millions face poverty.

In Afghanistan, the outbreak of the pandemic has and will further suppress an already sluggish economy. The economy may contract by 3%–8% in 2020. Inflationary pressures are mounting as a result of disruption in trade and supply chains. A sharp decline in revenues has exposed the country to a fiscal crisis. Un(der)employment (39.5% in 2017) and poverty (54.5% in 2017) are projected to increase to respectively 53.5% and 80% by the end of 2020 (Biruni Institute 2020).

In Bangladesh, all the drivers of Bangladesh’s economy have been severely affected during this economic crisis. These include the export sector—especially the garment industry, remittances, domestic industries and services, agriculture, poultry, fisheries, and especially small and medium enterprises. In the fiscal year ending June 2020, total exports declined by around 18%. The poverty rate is feared to increase to around 40% from around 20% in 2019. Considering the dynamics of the crisis so far, it is obvious that this crisis is going to leave a big mark on the economic growth and social achievements of Bangladesh (Raihan et al 2020).

In Bhutan, from tourism to trade, the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the livelihoods of many. Bhutan’s tourism sector remains among the hardest hit. Initial reports indicate that the temporary restriction on tourism has affected the livelihoods of some 50,000 Bhutanese, working in the sector, including hoteliers, travel agents and tour guides (UNDP 2020).

In India, with the imposition of restrictions on transportation worldwide, exports and imports saw a drastic fall in the country especially in the case of essential commodities, such as petroleum, food crops, and coal, among others. The growth rate of the automotive business in India was expected to be the most adversely affected, followed by the power supply and information technology sectors. Furthermore, many start-ups, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in India are expected to face issues of supply disruption and a decrease in demand (Keelery 2020).

Coronavirus has hit Maldives’ lucrative tourism industry. Tourism, directly and indirectly, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The industry also employs the single-largest proportion of the Maldivian workforce (Sharma 2020).

Nepal is feared to experience a 14% reduction in remittances in 2020, which will lead to a significant reduction in foreign exchange earnings for a country heavily dependent on remittances (World Bank 2020b). A large number of migrants are likely to return home, which, with the inability to absorb them in the job market, will create serious socio-economic problems. Also, travel and tourism, contributing around 4% to Nepal’s GDP and 3% to total employment, is one of the most affected sectors (ADB 2020). The hotel and restaurant sector in Nepal seemed to contract by 16.3% in the fiscal year that ended on 15 July 2020.

In Pakistan, major crops, the livestock, fruits and vegetable sector supplies are affected. In the large-scale manufacturing, sectors producing both tradable and non-tradable goods have been equally hit (Javed and Ayaz 2020). The halt in construction activities (now gradually being opened) resulted in the closure of basic and allied industries related to construction. This, of course, had implications for daily wage workers and those providing services in the informal sector. Ongoing concerns relate to drastic slowdown in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) sustainability and operations in the face of expected future rounds of Covid-19. While exporters from textile and garments sector are looking to pivot and diversify towards production of personal protective materials, unfortunately lesser options for pivoting are available to other export-oriented industries such as leather, surgical, sports, agro and food processing. The consumption levels and ultimately aggregate demand in the economy could remain depressed for a longer time if remittance and migration outlook globally remains uncertain.

As a classic small open economy, Sri Lanka has seen a broad hit across the economy affecting swathes of manufacturing and services. The most affected sectors are tourism, apparel exports, retail (non-essential goods), the financial sector, transportation, construction, and information technology (IT)/business process outsourcing (KPMG 2020). Interestingly, agriculture and agri-food processing for the domestic market have done relatively well, bolstered by reasonable weather. Exports of tea, coconut products, sea food and spices have grown in response to notable external demand and some large apparel firms are switching lines to make personal protective equipment such as face masks, protective suits and surgical gloves. E-commerce and some IT-related services are also expanding due to changes in the buying habits of consumers and business practices.

The Way Forward

At the time of writing, it is uncertain whether South Asian countries are likely to experience a rapid V-shaped economic recovery in 2021 or whether recovery will be slow with a prolonged period at the bottom of a U-shaped trajectory (Wignaraja 2020). The projections by international organisations, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are rather pessimistic both for 2021 and 2022. The prospects for recovery in South Asia, however, are closely linked to effectively managing the health hazard of COVID-19, reducing business uncertainty, resuming domestic economic activities, and reviving global demand. By focusing on the policy steps ahead, governments of South Asian countries can increase the likelihood of recovery within a reasonable time span.

Stimulus measures: Fiscal and monetary stimulus measures, tailored to national circumstances, can mitigate long-term economic damage in South Asia. The pandemic has affected every sector of the economy and every segment of the population in South Asia. All the national governments in the region have announced, albeit in varying degrees, fiscal and monetary relief measures to respond to damages wrought by the pandemic. These include, on the fiscal front, cash transfers and direct food assistance to the poor, wage support to workers, subsidies on electricity usage, and so on. Similarly, on the monetary front, some of the important measures taken are reductions in repo rate, cash reserve ratio requirements, and interest rates, deferrals on interest payments, etc. Given the limited financial resources of South Asian countries, their relief packages are modest compared to those of developed countries.

Afghanistan is a heavily aid-reliant and import-dependent economy. The pandemic is already affecting aid predictability. The Afghan government has allocated about $500 million to deal with the crisis, supported by donor grants and concessional credits. The need for an emergency support programme to households is enormous, and the government has designed a $300 million project (REACH: COVID-19 Relief Effort for Afghan Communities and Households) to distri­bute in-kind food supplies to poor households. However, the type and the structure of the programme, which currently relies on in-kind distribution of food, needs to be seriously reconsidered for the reasons of efficiency, effectiveness, value-for-money, and transparency.

Bangladesh, as of 14 May 2020, announced a $11.7 billion stimulus package to support the economy, with a primary focus on supporting the manufacturing and service sectors, agriculture and social safety nets. This support package is equivalent to 3.7% of the GDP. The central bank has also taken several steps to inject liquidity in the banking sector (reducing the cash reserve ratio and repo rates, purchase of bonds and bills), delay non-performing loan classification, relieve late fees for credit cards, extend tenures of trade instruments, and ensure access to financial services to deal with the urgent scenario (Haque and Mourshed 2020).

The Bhutan government wants to continue construction of hydropower projects to minimise the impact of COVID-19 and revive the land-locked country’s economy.

India responded by unveiling a $262 billion stimulus plan, amounting to 10% of the GDP, providing direct cash transfer to poor senior citizens and women and free foodgrain and cooking gas to give relief to the millions hit by the lockdown. The central bank cut the key interest rate. Also, a moratorium on repayment of loans for three months had been provided.

The Maldives government has announced an emergency $161.8 million stimulus package, which includes $100 million in emergency loans for businesses to meet short-term working capital needs, and $2 million short-term financing facility for the tourism industry.

The Nepal government has prioritised health in the recently unveiled budget for the fiscal year 2020–21. It has also planned to create 7,36,000 jobs in the agriculture and construction sectors and provide vocational trainings and seed capital to youth, among others. To support enterprises affected by lockdowns ensued by the pandemic, the government has announced, through the monetary policy, enlarging the refinance funds by five times up to about Nepalese rupee (NPR) 200 billion, and the creation of a special fund, particularly to support SMEs, worth NPR 50 billion. It has announced that the interest rates on loans provided through these funds will not exceed 5%.

In Pakistan, the government announced a rescue package of around $12.2 billion for businesses, SMEs and vulnerable people, and announced concessional loans for businesses. The country’s largest social safety nets programme—Ehsaas—disbursed `81 billion among 6.6 million deserving families to cover their liquidity-related constraints. The actual welfare impact of such spending will critically depend upon the reform in disbursement mechanisms of the existing and new forms of payments to the poor. For revival of jobs, a package for the construction sector has been announced and the government sees the federal budget for the fiscal year 2020–21 as an opportunity to introduce greater redistribution through a reformed fiscal policy. Pressures on local resources have subsided to an extent with IMF allowing rapid finance instrument facility and other multilateral development partners also contributing to the Pakistan Pandemic Response Plan.

Sri Lanka’s interim government is yet to mount a major fiscal stimulus package owing to difficulties in passing a national budget until after parliamentary elections on 5 August 2020. Accordingly, the country has relied heavily on a monetary stimulus, an activist Central Bank, trade policy actions and some social protection measures. In order to lift liquidity constraints and alleviate exchange rate pressures, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka lowered policy rates by 200 basis points across three rate cuts since March. On 31 March 2020, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka also announced a $250 million refinancing facility for banks, enabling them to expand their lending capacity to businesses, offer loan repayment moratoriums for six months and provide working capital at subsidised interest rates. To stabilise foreign exchange reserves, import restrictions of some items, including agricultural products were introduced on 19 March 2020, banks were prohibited from financing vehicle imports and outward remittances were suspended. Furthermore, emergency relief (totalling around 0.2% of GDP) to around 5.7 million vulnerable households was provided in the form of monthly payments (LKR 5,000, approximately $26), food allowances and concessional loans (IMF 2020b).

The success of the aforementioned stimulus packages in the South Asian countries will depend on three aspects—financing, management and monitoring. In the case of financing, given the likely scenario of reduced government revenue, it is necessary to suspend “unnecessary” or less important projects of the government. Also, borrowing from international organisations, such as the World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should be explored. It is additionally opportune for governments to revitalise existing mechanisms under the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, like the SAARCFINANCE Forum, to exchange ideas on stimulus measures and finance where possible. In this vein, on 24 July 2020, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the Reserve Bank of India entered into a $400 million swap under the Framework on Currency Swap Arrangement for SAARC countries. Proper management of the stimulus package is also very important. There is a need for efficient supervision—who will get the money and how. The government needs to ensure transparency and accountability in this whole process. Without proper monitoring of the use and management of stimulus package funds, its purpose will be severely hampered.

Improving public health systems: The crisis caused by COVID-19 has shown us that investing in South Asia’s underdeve­loped and overstretched health systems is essential. Reflecting a history of chronic underspending on public health, lags behind others. For instance, in 2017, South Asia spent only 0.9% of its GDP on public health, which is half the figure for sub-Saharan Africa (1.9%) and one-fifth of that of East Asia and South East Asia (4.4%). As Table 1 shows, strikingly, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan even spend below the regional average. The out-of-pocket health spending in most South Asian countries is exceedingly high in comparison to countries from East and South East Asia. The pandemic has exposed the dilapidated state of public health services in most South Asian countries to the detriment of the region’s poor and middle class. This has led to excess demand for private healthcare services from a relatively small private healthcare sector. However, the cost of private hospitals and healthcare services tends to be prohibitively expensive and there is a lack of accountability. It is also important to keep in mind that with the expected signi­ficant increase in public expenditure in the health sector, transparency and accountability in spending as well as value-for-money services must be ensured.

With limited doctors, drugs and hospital beds to cope with the pandemic, South Asia should target a gradual increase in public health spending to about 4% of the GDP. Furthermore, the region should invest in technologies to improve public health efficiency, such as 24/7 helplines that work and telemedicine to treat mild cases as well as ambulances to ferry serious cases to hospital. Rural- and community-based primary healthcare systems should also be upgraded. Timely public health investments will not only build capacity in South Asia to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but also provide insurance against future pandemics and other health problems. Indeed, recent research argues that the risk of pandemics and ageing-related disease is on the rise globally and that relatively smaller investments in preventive measures could substantially reduce the economic damage caused by future pandemics (McKinsey Global Institute 2020).

Reforms for pro-poor growth: Reforms should focus on pro-poor growth. The closure of manufacturing and services activities across South Asia means rising job loss and pay cuts for workers. Household income of the poorest households, linked to tourism, remittances and informal sector activity, will be hard hit. A protracted COVID-19-driven crisis may threaten food security, particularly for the most vulnerable and in least developed countries like Afghanistan and Nepal. The progress that South Asia has made in reducing poverty over the years could be reversed by the current pandemic. Therefore, after tackling the immediate pandemic threat and putting in place economic stimulus measures, attention should focus on the more difficult issues of formulating and implementing reforms for pro-poor growth in all South Asian countries. Such reforms should tackle the challenging issues of agricultural productivity and food security, targeted social safety nets, women’s empowerment, and small enterprises. These measures will help mitigate the impact of the economic crisis on the poor in South Asia. Also, the country experiences in South Asia suggest that there are problems of coordination among health policy, lockdown measures and economic policies in most of these countries. Efforts should also continue to improve the investment climate in South Asia, including cutting redundant red tape affecting business (in areas such as tax collection, land for business purposes, customs and local government permits) and digitisation of all public services. Improving the investment climate would show that South Asian countries are fully supportive of business efforts to revive economic activity, foster growth and create jobs.

Proper steps for opening up of the economy: Lockdowns and social distancing measures interrupt transmission of the virus and save overstretched health systems from collapse. But a prolonged lockdown risks causing significant economic damage and personal suffering. This is particularly so in South Asia, which is unable to offer costly social protection measures (such as unemployment benefits and universal healthcare) feasible in developed countries. However, lifting of lockdowns should be carefully planned as ad hoc opening up could encourage the spread of the virus and induce huge health and economic costs in the near future and may even lead to the reimposition of more stringent lockdowns. There is a need to develop and implement region-wise and sector-wise health protocols for opening up of economic activities along with the mandatory use of face masks, an increase in testing capacity and more use of individual self-quarantine practices in South Asian countries.

Regional cooperation: In South Asia, despite significant potential, regional integration and cooperation processes have been limited to date. A serious lack of mutual trust among most of the South Asian countries has constrained regionalism in South Asia. However, a public health emergency and economic crisis like the one brought by COVID-19 provide an opportunity for countries to work together for the common good of all South Asians.

First, South Asian countries need to share their experiences of the national policy measures to combat the crisis. The SAARCFINANCE Forum, which was established in 1998 as a regional network of the SAARC Central Bank Governors and Finance Secretaries, should be reactivated. Though the primary function of the network is to conduct a dialogue on macroeconomic policies of the region and share experiences and ideas of the member countries, the forum has been suspended since 2014 with the deadlock in the SAARC process. As the Prime Minister of India, in a video conference with SAARC leaders on 15 March 2020, proposed an emergency COVID-19 fund for SAARC countries, the time is ripe to revitalise the SAARCFINANCE Forum to discuss how this emergency fund can be established and operationalised. The SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund could be a useful building block to revive regional cooperation. At the senior officials’ level, discussions were also held on health issues arising from the transit of goods and people as well as fostering intra-regional trade. The SAARC Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management provides a road map for cooperation in natural disasters, including pandemic like COVID-19.

Second, no country in this region can boast to have health systems which comprehensively cover the needs of its citizens. Therefore, there is a case to strengthen health sector trade value chains in the region. In this regard, liberalisation of trade in health services is recommended; while countries in the region will have to invest in national public healthcare capacities in the medium to longer term, they can explore the use of the pool of doctors, nurses, medical facilities, generic drugs and experience available in this region to help each other. Under the SAARC process, there is a forum for a meeting of SAARC health ministers. One may recall that in the wake of the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, an emergency meeting of SAARC health ministers was held in Malé in April 2003 to develop a regional strategy to deal with the deadly epidemic. Between 2003 and 2017, there were six meetings of the SAARC health ministers. A promising sign of potential regional cooperation occurred on 26 March 2020, when senior health professionals of all SAARC countries met by videoconference and agreed that India will share online training tools for emergency responders and set up an electronic disease surveillance platform to help neighbouring countries trace and manage the coronavirus outbreaks. The SAARC’s Disaster Management Centre, which is housed in the campus of the Gujarat Institute of Disaster Management in India, has also set up a COVID-19 website with daily updates about confirmed cases throughout South Asia and national actions. Furthermore, India has provided training on management of Covid-19 pandemic for healthcare professionals from SAARC countries since 17 April 2020.

Third, given that the global supply chains have been severely disrupted in several sectors, South Asian countries should explore business opportunities for localisation and regionalisation of supply chains according to comparative advantage. The current crisis highlights the risk of over-reliance on a few countries, both for exports and imports. Despite the huge potential for intra-regional trade, South Asian countries have been unable to exploit this potential due to factors such as non-tariff measures, opaque investment rules, underdeveloped regional trade logistics, weak supply capacity and political conflicts. The current situation underscores the need for official dialogue on how to promote regional economic integration through supply chains in South Asia in this COVID-19 era. Think tanks can provide useful analytical work to underpin such discussions.

Fourth, scarcity of resources in the region for investment, at this point, may slow down economic recovery. South Asian countries are not in a position to bail out national economies with just internal resources. Therefore, a calibrated approach is needed to utilise foreign investments in the areas like healthcare, disease control and disaster management, food security, infrastructure development, etc. It is for that reason that some South Asian countries are looking to Chinese inward investment. It seems equally important that South Asian countries take steps to promote intra-regional investment through regional cooperation efforts.

Finally, the SAARC process and the SAARC secretariat need to be rejuvenated. The crisis brought by COVID-19 underlines the importance of efforts to deepen regional cooperation in South Asia. Cooperative efforts to work together to tackle the public health emergency could re-emphasise the economic benefits of regional cooperation at least in limited areas such as public health and management of natural disasters. Over time, improved trust and demonstrated benefits of regional cooperation could provide an incentive for countries in South Asia to make sincere efforts to put aside their political differences which hamper the development of a broader agenda for regional cooperation.

Concluding Remarks

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fragilities in health and national economic systems in South Asia, which additionally lacks the supportive buffer of shared resources, mechanisms and expertise that close regionalism can bring. The public health crisis, lockdowns and economic slowdown in the wake of COVID-19 are disrupting economic activities and increasing poverty on an unimaginable scale across the region. Governments in South Asia are responding nationally on the public health and economic fronts with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, there is a need for a stronger coordination among health mitigation policies, lockdown measures and economic recovery policies among the South Asian countries. The recent effort at regional cooperation is a good beginning to share responsibilities and to reactivate the SAARC process, which may help mitigate a prolonged downturn. The process of trust-building can be enhanced by the regular regional dialogue of governments and relevant stakeholders to strengthen SAARC cooperation in the COVID-19 era. Think tanks in South Asia region can be tasked with relevant research and advocacy. To tackle the pandemic and economic crisis, South Asia needs to ramp up its response. Working together offers the best hope for the region to succeed.


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KPMG (2020): “Impact of COVID-19 on the Sri Lankan Economy,” Colombo, https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/lk/pdf/kpmg-covid-19-economic-impact.

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— (2020b): “COVID-19 Crisis through a Migration Lens,” Migration and Development Brief 32, Washington, DC, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/989721587512418006/pdf/COVID-19-Crisis-Through-a-Migration-Lens.pdf.

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Updated On : 24th Nov, 2020


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