England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Covid-19 in Asia: the disaster still to come

Person in protective suit handing something to person wearing facemask

(Visit Chinaworker for detailed analysis on the situation in China and Hong Kong)

Chris Jamieson, Socialist Alternative in England and Wales

With the global disaster of the Coronavirus pandemic, people everywhere are waking up to the lack of concern the capitalist system has for the lives of ordinary people. Even in the ‘developed’ countries, from Italy and Sweden to Australia and Britain, big businesses are gifted with tax cuts and bailout money, while ordinary workers are left to fend for themselves, with shortages of medical and protective equipment for frontline health workers.

No country in the world is immune to the damage, either in terms of people’s health and livelihoods or economic impact. For many Asian nations, however, the pandemic will be an even more appalling disaster, made worse by the dire state of healthcare and infrastructure. As in every country, this is certainly a class issue; the impact on those already living in poverty, from overcrowded slums, to refugee camps and rural areas with little access to services, will be horrific.

The dire state of healthcare provision in Nepal was highlighted last year. Government doctors went on strike and brought to the fore the massive problem of the population having no access to government-run services, yet being unable to afford private healthcare. Health workers there also face the risk from a lack of PPE, while both Nepal and Thailand face the issue of masks being hoarded and sold on the black market.

India’s health workers also face danger from a lack of protective equipment, while Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok has struggled for months with an ongoing mask shortage. And Bangladesh is completely unprepared for a severe outbreak as the country does not have enough protective equipment or even ICU beds and testing kits.

The percentage of GDP spent on healthcare in Bangladesh is only 2.4%, while it is 2.8% in India. In Pakistan it is only 3.7% – a similar amount to that spent on the military.

Although the city of Manila in the Philippines has been quarantined, with residents ordered to stay home, such ‘social distancing’ will be almost impossible for those living in overcrowded slums where isolation and sanitation are luxuries. And in 2017, militants with Islamic State seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi, forcing huge numbers of people to flee into evacuation sites outside the city. Here too in these sites, medical supplies, sanitation, and even clean water are rare luxuries for the thousands of displaced families.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a complete lockdown. Yet for those affected by the violent communal attacks that struck New Delhi, such as people living in burnt-out and looted homes in the Shiv Vihar district – one of the worst-hit areas – this will mean nothing but continued misery. In the face of the sheer misery to affect millions there, Modi has been forced to issue an apology over his handling of the situation.

This situation mirrors that of the potential disaster facing the Rohingya people in the refugee camps of Bangladesh, where an outbreak of Coronavirus would be devastating. On March 30th, ASEAN Today reported the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Cox’s Bazaar, one of the sites on Bangladesh holding huge numbers of Rohingya refugees.

And while Myanmar now has confirmed cases of Coronavirus, previous preventative efforts in the capital city of Yangon were left to volunteers, rather than the government – who are threatening the lives and safety of people in Rakhine state due to an internet ban preventing information about Coronavirus from being shared.

Workers and migrants

In Cambodia, more than five thousand garment workers were sacked when factories closed in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, while the lockdown in Bangkok, Thailand, has a severe impact on the many migrant workers there. Most of them work on construction sites, and live in poorly-built, inadequate housing, with little sanitation and no masks or sanitisers provided to them.

In Jakarta, motorcycle taxi drivers are losing up to 70% of their income while facing risks to their health, and across Indonesia, the crisis is having a dire effect on the health and livelihoods of informal workers. Last year, informal workers made up almost 58% of the Indonesian workforce. Included in this group are shop assistants and delivery drivers, who cannot afford to self-isolate.

Across India, homeless shelters are struggling with a surge in demand as massive numbers of people have their livelihoods devastated. According to the ILO, over 80% of India’s non-agricultural workers are in informal work, while rural labourers face losses over disruption to supply chains. Informal workers make up 77.6% of Pakistan’s workforce, while the percentage in Nepal is even higher, at 90.7%

This crisis will also bring the issue of migrant workers’ oppression under capitalism to the fore. The lockdown in India has also meant that massive numbers of migrant workers have lost their jobs and their homes, causing a mass exodus as they try to return home. In the words of one 28-year-old migrant worker: “We will die of walking and starving before getting killed by corona.”

Nepal’s economy depends heavily on remittance money sent by the huge numbers of Nepali workers who seek better pay abroad. Despite the lockdown in Qatar, thousands of Nepali migrant workers there live in squalid, crowded areas lacking sanitation, at greater danger from the spread of the virus. Many Nepali workers, now stranded in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Malaysia, have to continue working through the pandemic, such as those workers in Malaysia who make the latex gloves which are now in high demand.

A particularly dystopian article in the Kathmandu Post also describes how the crisis has impacted the repatriation from abroad of bodies of Nepali migrant workers, given that around two Nepali migrants working abroad die each day.

Capitalism – the system exposed

The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the complete inadequacy of capitalism worldwide to properly handle the crisis, with some nations being almost left to fend for themselves despite their poor or lacking infrastructure. Increasing numbers of people are asking the question – why has there not been a planned, properly coordinated approach internationally to deal with this crisis?

There have been plenty of previous examples of the disproportionate danger to poorer and less-developed nations that outbreaks like this can cause.

For example, the outbreak of dengue fever last year across Central America and much of Asia, heavily impacted the poor, especially those living in slums. This was down to lack of proper running water, as well as no sewage or drainage facilities, creating an ideal breeding ground for the mosquitoes that transmitted the disease. The disease had first broken out in only five of Nepal’s seventy-seven districts in 2006, yet in 2019 fifty-six districts were affected, though the government was slow to organise vital programmes to combat the disease.

This crisis clearly shows that capitalism is incapable of solving the problems faced right now – millions of people around the world are witnessing a system that is well past its sell-by date, which ultimately values only profits, not people. The working masses in the countries of Asia and across the world have the power to change society if organised with a socialist programme. The time has come for ‘system change’ – nothing less than the socialist transformation of society will be enough. Socialist Alternative and our co-thinkers around the world – organised in International Socialist Alternative – are working to build an organisation dedicated to fighting for this socialist change.


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