Exacerbating Effects of COVID-19 in South Asia: Concerns for Human Development and Security in Nepal


“Security through development, not through arms; Security of all the people everywhere-in their homes, in their streets, in their communities, in their environments.”   (Haq, 1995, p. 115).

The grip of the novel coronavirus has become unrelenting throughout the world. With health organizations, operating on international and national spheres, exhausting themselves in an effort to contain the spread of the pandemic, states have been struggling to keep their territories safe. Vulnerabilitieshave been further aggravated as numbers of infections increase in South Asia.

The developing states had been dealing with issues of migration, climate change, graduating towards a developing economy and geopolitical tensions long before the virus made itself a part of everyday reality. With the battle against Covid-19 having already occupied the better half of 2020, South Asian states now tackle a unique set of concerns emerging from the global crisis. Individuals who form a vulnerable portion of the population have been dealt a considerably bad hand with regards to the situation in Nepal.This has been further explored in the later section.

 Human Security: Pre-existing concerns in South Asia

Nestled in the cradle of the Himalaya, surrounded by vast bodies of water and a home to almost 24.89% of the world’s population, South Asia has been as connected as it has been fragmented by the historical, cultural and religious linkages it boasts of.

While states in the region have become grown overly zealous of protecting their borders, individuals have been facing obstacles beyond the traditional concerns. The notion of human development emerged out of the arguments from works of influential scholars such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen who differentiated between economic growth and development.It further laid groundwork for the further consideration of human security.

Sen (1999) claimed that “(d)evelopment requires the removal of major sources of unfreedoms” wherein there was an emphasis on the definition of development that transcended the inclusion of just the Gross National Product (GNP). The Nobel laureate with retrospection on the late Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo’s stressed upon ideals of “survival, daily life, and dignity of human beings” (2000). He further explained that it was imperative for human security to become a priority as it addressed a plethora of old and contemporary threats that were interrelated in the globalized world order.

As the Iron Curtain was ripped away, new dimensions of security gained traction in the academic and policy discussions. The United Nations Humans Rights Report of 1994, which was a product of both Sen and Haq’s identification of non-traditional security threats, defined the basic securities necessary to lead a fulfilled life: economic, political, health, environmental, economic, community and food. The report laid particular emphasis on the interdependence of these “components.” It argued that a complete understanding of human security could provide an insight into traditional security which has primarily been aligned with military, territorial integrity and economic growth.

Insecurities that have stemmed from such interdependent threats have been a product both of limited capabilities and of the inability to recognize and prioritize the threats towards these necessities above those than of the traditional thought. This has put most countries in the region in an incredibly susceptible position.

Poverty and unemployment have been major issues that have plagued most states in the region. Owing to prolonged period of lockdown, a slump in global trade and the closing of international borders, the reports flowing down from several leading global institutions paint a portrait of dire consequences. The Global Economic Prospects (2020) published by the World Bank has claimed that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)  is expected to contract by 2.7% in 2020 hampering the growth at such a scale of the robust economies in the region for the first time in 40 years.

What raises significant concern, however, is the disparities that have been projected to deepen owing to these reasons.The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or UNESCAP has estimated that 132 million individuals could be facing a situation of extreme poverty by the end of the year.With the increase in the loss of jobs and narrow economic opportunities, women, migrants, persons with disabilities, slum dwellers, and other vulnerable groups would be facing the brunt of COVID-19.

The ripple effect of such a pandemic is likely to have “long-lasting consequences on human development and can be passed to subsequent generations.” Poverty and unemployment generate situations of incapability that limit the overall opportunities available to a community or an individual. For states mostly reliant on tourism and remittance, the concerns are even bigger. Economic and health security will be impacted on levels that have been unprecedented in the century due to unequal distribution of resources both at a global and national level.

As most of the world has seemingly come to a screeching halt, anthropogenic climate change also has continued to be a persistent and important problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report had clarified that South Asia was highly prone to the rising sea levels, floods, health risks and food insecurity. The World Bank expected the situation to only worsen as it concluded that the region was home to states more vulnerable than most around the globe to the effects of climate change.

The Economist in assessing the pre- and post-Covid-19 pollution levels had pointed out that as certain states were loosening restriction levels, the threat to not just the environment but for people suffering from respiratory diseases was disquieting. The Annual Update on the Air Quality Life Index published in July 2020 noted that Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India were counted amongst the most polluted countries in the world and were the current levels to be maintained, the average life expectancy of the people in the area would be shortened by five years.

In addition to that is the fact that among the 24 million individuals who were displaced in 2019 due to climate change disasters, South Asia alone accounted for the 9.5 million among them. This phenomenon is only predicted to worsen within the current crisis as states are unprepared to effectively mitigate the disasters and recognize the inequalities that will inevitably stem from such displacements. With melting ice caps, dangers of glacier lake outburst floods and the shores of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives facing the vast oceans, migration might be an inevitable result, and this will test the capabilities of each state and the region as a whole.

In the case of the South Asian region that is strife with tensions stemming from age-long mistrust and conflict, an integrated response without the politicization of issues would be the key to resolve the matter in a cohesive manner. The border stand-off between India and China, and the constant struggle between India and Pakistan affects the coordinated efforts within the region. It was evident when South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member-states convened in May to discuss about the possible pathways to combat the global pandemic, the Pakistani representative brought up the issue of Kashmir, citing humanitarian concerns.

Tensions at Home: Beyond Territorial Borders

“Nepal has long been facing a high incidence of poverty, a low level of human development and weak human security propelled by the decade-long armed conflict, disasters, climate change and vulnerability.” (Khatiwada, 2013, p. 33).

Nepal has been experiencing periods of lockdown, public unrest and government constraints since the effects of the global pandemic resulting in the increase of infections and deaths. With an economy that is largely dependent on remittance and tourism sector, the recovery period that will ensue once the health crisis becomes manageable is framed within the unpredictable array of possibilities. If what recent reports from financial institutions hold true, the World Bank has estimated that Nepal will face a downturn in its growth falling between the range of 1.5%-2.8% in 2020, indicating that it could fall further in situations of protracted lockdown. The remittance that usually drives the nation’s economy is also projected to fall by 12% in 2020, and it may remain downcast throughout 2021 according to a recent report from the institution.

A public health emergency at the foremost consideration of several institutions, the virus has tested the resolve and efficiency of every organization that stands at the front of the response lines. As community transmissions have become an actuality throughout the regions, cases of infections have been piling high and insecurities about the capability of the government to effectively handle it have come to the fore.

Food security, climate change, political insecurities and economic concerns have been topics that the government and the people have been trying to tackle since the first lockdown commenced and ended with devastating impacts on several groups. Various districts have faced food shortages owing to strict lockdown policies. The closure of schools that took place around that time ensured that around 2.4 million children, as the World Food Program reported, who relied on school lunches missed out on “the only proper meals they could count on”, something that their parents could not afford to do so properly at home. Adding to this is the disruption of the domestic food supply chains affecting the agricultural sectors that serves as a livelihood to many, and this may in effect prove fatal.

Moreover, the topography of the country is particularly susceptible to the risks presented by climate change as global warming is introducing different sets of challenges that is putting pressure on an already overwrought condition. And while the lockdown in many countries including Nepal was said to make the air cleaner and limit pollution for a while, problems emanating from such a situation has been two-fold. First, experts have agreed on the stance that environmental protection and economic growth needs to go together and cannot be exchanged for the other. Second, as stated in the aforementioned article by The Economist, the rise in pollution levels has caused an even greater impact as lockdowns have eased.

COVID-19 in this regard has affected the vulnerable groups the most. At the forefront of discussions on inequality has been the topic of gender-based discrimination and the rising reports of domestic violence. An issue that persisted in the society prior to the pandemic making itself an everyday reality, the cases of abuse has grown drastically during this crisis. Considered a vulnerable group by many, violence against women and girls has only increased due to preexisting inequalities.

Moreover, a particularly vulnerable section of the population in the current times are the migrant workers, as the pandemic has limited the sources of livelihood for the Nepalese laborers who seek for work mostly in India, Malaysia and the Middle East. The lockdown that prompted several workers to come back to Nepal, resulted in them facing stringent restrictions at the border, with state agencies being unable to handle the flow of the returning citizens. With reduced purchasing power, owing to their income being cut-off in several instances, the returnee migrants have been facing increasing food and economic insecurity.

Nepal had been dealing with overcoming these challenges even before its economy was set back by the pandemic, and its territorial integrity was threatened. The global pandemic has simply scratched at these vulnerabilities and exposed these trends. The political institutions and foundations, laid post the conclusion of the armed conflict,are still fragile, and for the state to come out of the crisis with scars that will not leave a permanent mark, the government needs to have concrete long-term policies. The crisis created by the pandemic is likely to leave an imprint on the state’s political and economic affairs, and the road to recovery is arduous. It is all but dependent on the response of the government, as well as the state’s ability to coordinate its efforts with its neighboring states, and present a clear foreign and domestic policy to tackle the issue in a more sustainable manner.

Further Readings:

Haq, M. u. (1995). New imperatives of human security. World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 4(1), 68-73.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. .

Sen, A. (2000). Why Human Security. International Symposium on Human Security, (pp. 1-11). Tokyo.

Upreti, B. R., Bhattarai, R., & Wagle, G. S. (2013). Human Security in Nepal: Concepts, Issues

and Challenges. Kathmandu: Nepal Institute for Policy Studies and South Asia Regional Coordination Office of NCCR (North-South)


About the author

The writer teaches at the Department of International Relations & Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. The opinions expressed in the article are that of the writer and not of the institution she is affiliated to.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply