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 A health worker inoculates a woman with anti-Covid vaccine in Kathmandu, Nepal. A health worker inoculates a woman with anti-Covid vaccine in Kathmandu, Nepal.  (AFP or licensors)

UNICEF: South Asia’s pandemic surge threatens lives of children, mothers

According to the UN’s children’s fund, 228,000 children under 5 and 11,000 mothers died due to disruptions to essential health care services in South Asia in 2020 due to the pandemic. The current surge in infections could be even more devastating unless addressed adequately.

By Robin Gomes

The United Nations Children’s fund (UNICEF) has raised alarm over South Asia’s fragile healthcare system devastated by massive waves of Covid-19 infections, which could claim many more lives than last year.  UNICEF regional director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei called for urgent action and funds to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and mothers in the densely populated region who are missing out on routine life-saving healthcare. 

Fragile health system

Speaking at a video press conference from the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, Laryea-Adjei described just how desperate the situation is in the region, stressing, “We simply cannot let this happen.”

“The scenes we are witnessing in South Asia are unlike anything our region has seen before,” he said, noting he has seen patients’ families carrying oxygen cylinders into hospitals, “risking their own lives in hopes of saving a loved one”.  

Exhausted health personnel working up to sixteen hours a day are unable to pay individual attention to every patient under their care, he said, warning of  “a real possibility of the fragile health systems collapsing”.

Half the world’s Covid-19 cases in South Asia

Home to 2 billion people and a quarter of the world’s children, South Asia now accounts for half the world’s Covid-19 infections, the UNICEF regional director pointed out.  Over 3 new infections are being recorded every second in the region and 1 person is dying every 17 seconds. "The sheer scale and speed of this new surge of Covid-19 are outstripping countries’ abilities to provide life-saving treatment,” Laryea-Adjei said.

India registered 4,529 deaths on May 19, the highest number on a single day in the history of Covid-19, he said. In Nepal, the infection rate is as high as 47 percent. Sri Lanka, where 88 percent of hospital beds are occupied, is hitting new highs in fresh cases and deaths.  In the Maldives, the health system is under severe strain unprecedented peak in cases, particularly in the capital, Malé.  "Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bhutan could all face similar devastating surges,” UNICEF said.

Lives of children and mothers at stake

"We need to act fast to save lives now,” Laryea-Adjei said, adding “we also need to do everything within our power to keep the critical health care services that children and mothers so heavily rely on running.”

He pointed out that due to the pandemic, “an estimated 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers across South Asia died due to severe disruptions to essential health services, such as routine immunization, care during pregnancy and childbirth, and treatment for pneumonia and malnutrition.”  

With the second wave four times the size of the first, he warned of a likelihood of “a severe spike in child and maternal deaths in South Asia”. 

“We simply cannot let this happen,” he urged.

Laryea-Adjei said his agency has been working tirelessly to scale up the response by providing critical lifesaving supplies such as oxygen concentrators, testing kits, pulse oximeters, oxygen monitors, ventilators and masks.  

"But much more support is needed," he said, adding UNICEF needs $164 million for the urgent delivery of these supplies. He said this will help bolster the healthcare systems of South Asian countries not only now but also in the long term.

Unfair vaccine access

Laryea-Adjei also blamed vaccine inequity for fueling the virus in the region. 

According to UNICEF, less than 10 percent of the population in India, less than 8 percent in Nepal and less than 5 percent in Sri Lanka have had an anti-covid vaccine dose. 

The UNICEF official warned that if the high-risk populations continue to remain unvaccinated, the virus will continue to rage.  He said wealthier countries need to donate their excess doses to COVAX, the UN-led facility to ensure poor countries are not left behind in the fight against the virus.

27 May 2021, 14:41