In February, Covid-19 numbers started rising again in South Asia with official daily case counts ultimately rising beyond 4,00,000 in India, 6,000 in Pakistan and 7,500 in Bangladesh, straining health systems. The massive surge in India soon spilled into Nepal, leading to “apocalyptic” scenes of overwhelmed hospitals.
This virus knows no borders. Containing it has necessitated global cooperation. Despite wide variation in how nations have responded to the pandemic, the most successful strategies find commonality in their adherence to science and attention to local context.
The deadly surge in 2021 makes a regionally-coordinated, evidence-driven strategy even more critical. The virus continues to challenge us with its mutations and new lines of attack. If we are to move at its speed, it is necessary to construct multi-stakeholder regional coalitions to devise new solutions and frugal innovations that can be applied across South Asia. Given our shared and mostly similar social, economic and cultural contexts, local successes must be amplified across the region.
Is that possible, given the troubled history South Asian countries share? The mutual mistrust appears to have hit a new low as SAARC has not even managed to hold a summit since 2014. But today, we write a positive, hopeful story about a new consortium we are involved in, with core team members from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh jointly developing Covid prevention strategies. It is an example of how neighbours can work together for mutual benefit, despite political differences.
Every country in South Asia has struggled to ensure consistent mask-wearing to contain Covid-19. Beliefs, priorities, traditions and aversions to behavioural change are more similar across South Asia than we admit. This means that interventions that are successful in changing behaviour in one place are highly likely applicable in other parts of the subcontinent. We have experienced this with Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) campaigns to solve the problem of open defecation — originally developed by Bangladeshi NGOs in partnership with an Indian consultant — now broadly applied across South Asia and beyond. The Grameen Bank microcredit model was an indigenous South Asian innovation that spread rapidly. BRAC’s recent “graduation” programme targeting the ultra-poor in Bangladesh was replicated with success in India and Pakistan. India’s digitised social protection ecosystem with Aadhaar ids and Jan Dhan accounts serves as a model (albeit with cautionary notes) for the region. E-governance programmes in Pakistan, like eVaccs and Citizen Feedback Model, have been replicated and provide strong models ready to be deployed regionally and globally.
The new pan-South Asian consortium in response to Covid-19 evolved out of an experiment conducted in Bangladesh that successfully changed social norms around mask-wearing in rural communities. We observed that a combination of no-cost distribution, offering information, reinforcing the message in markets, mosques and other public spaces, and modeling and endorsement by community leaders (NORM) leads to large, sustained increases in mask usage that persisted beyond the period of active intervention. The team is now partnering with several organisations across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh to adapt the model for each country, and set up partnerships to pilot, implement, tinker and learn. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) quickly implemented the model to reach over one million members in Gujarat. Additional 1.5 million masks were shipped from Bangladesh to support SEWA’s outreach to other states. Lahore’s commissioner worked with the research team to adapt the NORM model to an urban setting and devised new creative ideas to improve effectiveness. For example, they have prepared to deliver masks using the postal service and are targeting beneficiaries on the basis of billing information from utility companies. Philanthropists and private corporations are sponsoring the masks. Some of these innovations are being re-imported to Dhaka, inspiring further scale-ups in Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Kathmandu.
Effective mask promotion requires visits to thousands of remote villages, and those visits can be used to prepare for more effective community-based healthcare responses. To that end, a host of physicians, scientists and community-based organisations created the Swasth Community Science Alliance, committing to pragmatic, science-based protocols to manage mild and moderate cases of Covid-19 in rural India, where institutional health care access is limited. These guidelines (available at https://science.swasth.app) were translated to training tools for healthcare workers by digital health innovators like Noora Health, making them widely available across the region.
NORM implementation teams based in Lahore, Ahmedabad, Peshawar, Hyderabad, Dhaka, Kathmandu and Delhi are learning from each other’s successes and failures. The process usually starts with the original research team sharing evidence-based insights with implementing agencies, as the implementers adapt the design, co-create localised implementation protocols, which are threaded together in a collaborative environment across countries. Each implementing team iterates while learning from others’ prior iterations, and all our sub-teams are connected in an active learning system that allows us to course-correct in real time. This coalition is poised to change mask-wearing norms across South Asia.
The CSA is working with partners across rural, tribal belts around India. A team of physicians from India and the Indian diaspora works with local implementing partners to support design, implementation and monitoring of home-based programmes and Covid-19 centres providing treatment for moderate cases following a rigorous protocol, with oxygen, proning and steroids.
Combining the NORM and CSA interventions, the Masking-Treatment-Vaccine Preparation (MTV) approach offers a sensible strategy to mitigate the pandemic until universal vaccination is achieved. These are regional solutions that thoughtfully apply scientifically sound interventions to the local context.
The Covid-19 crisis has increased policymakers’ appetite for evidence-informed policy measures that can be quickly implemented to stem transmission. This drive for quick action has created some unprecedented opportunities for enhanced cross-country collaborations that are normally hampered by politics and mistrust. We hope that the consortium that first formed around mask-promotion, and now around science-based treatment approaches, and that developed quickly and organically without regard to national boundaries, can serve as a model for a broader and deeper collaborative ecosystem that endures. We need to come together to solve problems that affect us all. Let the lasting legacy of this pandemic be a new era of partnership in social innovations that can benefit all South Asians.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 17, 2021 under the title ‘Neighbours against the virus’. Mobarak is professor of Economics, Yale University, and director of Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale. Rehman is director of policy, Mahbub-ul-Haq Research Centre, Lahore University of Management Sciences. Balsari is assistant professor of emergency medicine, and of global health and population, Harvard University
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