March 16, 2020 / 9:09 AM / 5 months ago

Crowded, poor South Asia sees steady rise in coronavirus cases

ISLAMABAD/KABUL (Reuters) - Health authorities across South Asia reported rising tallies of coronavirus cases on Monday, raising the prospect of rapidly spreading outbreaks overwhelming poor medical facilities in a region that is home to a quarter of the world’s people.

A worker disinfects the exteriors of a passenger train parked at a railway yard as a preventive measure against coronavirus, on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

South Asia has been relatively lightly hit by the virus compared with neighbors to the east, like China and South Korea, and to the west like Iran and parts of Europe.

But measures that have reined in epidemics in China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year, and South Korea are unlikely to work in poor, crowded parts of South Asia, health officials say.

“As compared to developed countries like the United States and China it will be difficult to (enforce) social distancing, especially in slum areas,” said Giridhara R Babu, an epidemiologist at the Indian Institute of Public Health in the city of Bengaluru.

“The living environment itself is crowded and may not be practical to ask them to maintain minimum distance from each other.”

Pakistan recorded a sharp rise in coronavirus cases on Monday, up 40 to 94, according to a Reuters tally of statistics from central and provincial governments.

The majority of new cases were in the southern province of Sindh in patients who had recently traveled from Iran - which has one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

Afghanistan saw its tally rise to 21 with the majority of cases in the western province of Herat, which borders Iran and where thousands of Afghans cross back into their home country every day, some after being deported and others to escape a worsening Iranian economy.

Afghanistan’s health infrastructure has been devastated by decades of war and a lack of funds and it would be hard pressed to mount any sort of concerted action against a coronavirus epidemic.

Matin Noorzai, a wholesaler in the one of the main markets in the Afghan capital of Kabul, said he had seen unprecedented demand and soaring food prices in recent days as worried shoppers stocked up.

“If the situation continues like this, I am sure in the coming week there will be no food left in the market,” he said.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, reported an almost-doubling of cases to 18 from 10. India’s tally rose to 110, while the total number of cases in the Maldives and Bangladesh rose to 13 and 5, respectively.

On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for regional action to tackle the virus, and he offered $10 million from India to get a regional emergency fund going.

Speaking to fellow South Asian leaders via video conference, Modi said India would also offer rapid response teams and other expertise to deal with the crisis.

Around the world, the coronavirus has infected nearly 170,000 people, killing more than 6,500 of them, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi, Pakistan, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Storay Karimi in Herat, Afghanistan, Alasdair Pal in New Delhi and Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Robert Birsel

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