Starting as a health emergency, COVID-19-the global pandemic has evolved into an economic and a ‘human crisis,’ of mammoth proportions. As governments locked down the populations in an effort to contain the pandemic to save lives, economic activities have been disrupted, leaving millions of people jobless, pushing them into poverty and hunger, and plunging the world economy into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. South Asia, a subregion with nearly a quarter of world’s population but over a third of world’s people living in extreme poverty and hunger, has been impacted severely given the vast proportion of population living at the margins, fragmented coverage of social protection, pervasive informality in economic activities and employment, and wide gaps in public health infrastructure. Millions of workers have been rendered jobless, inequalities have been accentuated and the crisis is likely to reverse years, if not decades, of gains in poverty reduction, undermining the progress made by the subregion towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prepared as a part of the UNESCAP Framework on Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19, this paper argues that effort of governments should not be to go back to the status quo ante but to build back better by turning the crisis into an opportunity to create more equal, sustainable and resilient societies in South Asia, helping the subregion to also close the SDG gaps expeditiously.
South Asia entered the COVID-19 crisis with a low level of preparedness: The COVID-19 outbreak hit South Asia at a time when the SDGs were gaining traction and countries had begun to make some progress. Gaps in public health infrastructure, basic sanitation facilities and access to broadband connectivity have been exposed in addressing the pandemic. With already elevated levels of fiscal deficits and public debt, governments of the South Asian countries found themselves having limited fiscal space to mount major relief and stimulus packages needed to mitigate socioeconomic impacts.