On 7 May 2021, India reached a grim milestone: a record 414,188 new cases of COVID-19 in a single day. As India’s catastrophic rise in COVID-19 continues, with more than 21 million confirmed cases and 234,083 deaths to date, neighboring countries in South Asia are preparing for the impact. Across the region, health officials face the potential for extreme strain on national health systems.
“UNICEF is very concerned about this deadly daily increase in new cases,” said Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, Unicef representative in India, on 7 May. “This wave is almost four times the size of the first wave and the virus is spreading much faster. On average, there were more than four new cases every second and more than two deaths every minute in the last 24 hours. With the increase in cases, the virus is also affecting more people in all age groups, including children and infants.
“What is happening in India should sound the alarm for all of us. The pandemic is far from over. Cases of COVID-19 are increasing at an alarming rate in South Asia, especially in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives.”
“The very low levels of vaccination in South Asia increase the likelihood that the virus will get further out of control,” warned George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia in a statement on 4 May 2021.
“In almost every country 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 that vaccines reach all populations equitably. Manufacturing must be increased, technology must be transferred and doses must be shared equally. None of us are safe until we’re all safe.”
As a key partner of the COVAX facility, a multilateral initiative to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide, UNICEF is coordinating efforts to increase vaccination rates in the region. On 7 March, Nepal received its first shipment of 48,000 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. That total has since increased to 348,000 of the 1.92 million doses allocated, sufficient to vaccinate 20 per cent of the country.
“As we work to respond to the public health emergency, we cannot forget the profound impacts of the pandemic on children,” Laryea-Adjei said. “Children are being directly affected by the disease in more numbers than ever before. They are losing their parents and caregivers, becoming witnesses to scenes no child should see and being cut off from their schools and vital support networks. And as resources are diverted and services become saturated, the essential health services on which they rely heavily, including routine immunization programmes, are now at risk of being compromised, if not shut down altogether.”
“If this happens, once again it will be the most vulnerable children and families who will suffer the most. The first wave of the pandemic caused drastic cuts in the availability and use of essential public health services in South Asia, killing some 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers. We simply cannot allow this to happen again. We must do everything in our power to keep essential health, immunization and nutrition services operational and to ensure that women and children around the world feel safe to use them.”