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South Asia Braces for a Health Crisis Following India's COVID-19 Surge

May 7, 2021

Viruses know no borders. As India's daily COVID-19 case rate tops 400K, neighboring countries prepare for a coming emergency. UNICEF is on the ground, working with partners to contain the coronavirus and save lives. 

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On May 7, 2021, India hit a grim milestone: a record 414,188 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day. As India's catastrophic coronavirus surge continues, with more than 21 million confirmed cases and 234,083 deaths to date, neighboring South Asian countries are bracing for impact. Across the region, health officials are facing the possibility that national health systems will be strained to the breaking point. 

"UNICEF is very concerned about this deadly daily surge in new cases," Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India, said on May 7. "This wave is almost four times the size of the first wave and the virus is spreading much faster.  On an average, there were more than four new cases every second and more than two deaths every minute in the last 24 hours. With the surge in cases, the virus is also affecting more people across age groups including children and infants.

"What is happening in India should raise alarm bells for all of us. The pandemic is far from over. COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate across South Asia, especially in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives."

UNICEF is working with partners to strengthen screening processes and hygiene measures along India's borders

On May 5, 2021, travelers crossing from India to Nepal at the Birguni point of entry in southern Nepal's Parsa district wash their hands and receive temperature checks and antigen tests before being able to set off for their home districts or to isolation centers as required. © UNICEF/UN0458723/Nepal

Traffic between India and Nepal is steady along their shared 1,089-mile border. UNICEF is working with partners to strengthen border screening processes, isolate those who test positive and provide travelers with the information and resources they need to stay healthy. At points of entry, UNICEF works with the Ministry of Health and Population, local governments, security forces and other humanitarian partners to:

  • provide handwashing and drinking water facilities
  • install temporary toilets
  • distribute health kits, safe water and sanitation and hygiene supplies
  • arrange transportation to isolation centers for those who have tested positive
  • train border personnel to better communicate preventive measures to travelers
  • offer counselling and other forms of support

Very low levels of vaccination leave India's neighbors unprotected against COVID-19

On May 5, 2021, a UNICEF staff member discusses health safety measures at the border crossing from India into Nepal at the Birgunj point of entry in Parsa District in southern Nepal. © UNICEF/UN0458748/Nepal

“The very low levels of vaccination in South Asia magnify the likelihood of the virus spiralling even further out of control," George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia warned in a statement on May 4, 2021.

"In almost all countries in the region, with the exception of Maldives and Bhutan, fewer than 1 in 10 people have been vaccinated. Now more than ever, we must ensure vaccines equitably reach all populations. Manufacturing must be ramped up, technology transferred, and doses equitably shared. None of us are safe until all of us are safe."

As part of COVAX, UNICEF is working to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines throughout the region

On April 21, 2021, Ram Dawadi, staff at the UNICEF-supported Bhachhek Health Post in Gorkha District in north-central Nepal, carries COVID-19 vaccines to the health facility to provide the second doses to health workers and frontline workers in the area. © UNICEF/UN0447388/Prasad Ngakhusi

As a key partner of the COVAX Facility, a multilateral initiative to ensure equitable worldwide distribution of vaccines, UNICEF is coordinating efforts to increase vaccination rates in the region. On March 7, Nepal received its first shipment of 48,000 COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine doses. That total has since risen to 348,000 doses of the 1.92 million allocated, enough to vaccinate 20 percent of the country. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening children's lives and futures

“As we work to respond to the public health emergency, we cannot forget the profound impacts of the pandemic on children," said Laryea-Adjei. "Children are being directly affected by the disease in higher numbers than ever before. They are losing parents and caregivers, becoming witnesses to scenes no child should ever see and being cut off from their schools and vital support networks. And as resources are diverted and services saturated, the essential health services they so heavily rely on – including routine immunization programs — are now at risk of being compromised, if not shuttered entirely."

“If this happens, it will once more be the most vulnerable children and families who will suffer most. The first wave of the pandemic caused drastic cuts in the availability and use of essential public health services in South Asia, costing us the lives of an estimated 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers. We simply cannot let this happen again. We must do everything within our power to keep essential health, immunization and nutrition services running — and make sure women and children everywhere feel safe to use them."

On May 5, 2021, a father adjusts his young son's mask as the family makes the crossing from India into Nepal at the Birgunj point of entry in Parsa District in southern Nepal. © UNICEF/UN0458745/Nepal

“COVID has shown more than ever we are living in an interconnected world," said Dr. Haque. "India is under threat today. We need solidarity to prevent the situation from getting worse in other countries. We are very thankful for the support and compassion from the international community. We need the compassion and contribution to continue until we see the end of the pandemic."

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Read more about how UNICEF is helping fight India's brutal COVID-19 wave here.

Top photo: On May 5, 2021, individuals and families making the crossing from India into Nepal at the Birgunj point of entry in Parsa District in southern Nepal are met by border personnel and UNICEF-supported health workers for temperature checks and COVID-19 antigen tests before being able to set off for their home districts or to isolation centers as required. © UNICEF/UN0458763/Nepal. Video: Tong Su