Governments across South Asia must immediately address healthcare shortages and urgently strengthen their healthcare systems to respond to the rapid surge of COVID-19 cases in the region, said Amnesty International today.

With India and Nepal's healthcare systems reaching breaking point, the human rights organisation expressed concern about the lack of preparedness in other countries in the region in relation to the virus's latest and most deadly wave.

Extremely low vaccination rates across South Asia have also left the region highly vulnerable, with pressing action needed at the global level to ensure more equitable access to vaccines.

"The human catastrophe that is unfolding in India and Nepal should be a warning to other countries in the region to invest heavily in building capacity for an emergency response to the virus surge. The virus is spreading and transcending borders at a frightening speed and will continue to hit the region's most marginalised populations hardest of all," said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director in a press release. "We are at a critical point. Fewer than one in ten of the region's population has been vaccinated.

The decisions taken by governments in South Asia and across the world in the coming days and weeks will be crucial in mitigating the human cost of this latest surge."

South Asia, home to a quarter of the world's population, is fast becoming the new global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 6, India reported more than 400,000 new cases in one day, taking its total tally of confirmed cases to 21.5 million, though this is likely to be a significant underestimate.

As the disease ravages India, several south Asian nations are also facing a resurgence of cases.

Nepal, which shares a porous border with India, has already started to experience a massive spike in infections.

According to figures of the World Health Organisation, daily cases increased 30-fold from 303 to 9,317, or an increase of 2,975 per cent, between April 12 and May 12.

On Tuesday, Nepal recorded another 9,317 cases, bringing its total to 413,111.

According to Amnesty International, with India stopping export of oxygen, Nepal is struggling to find alternative supplies. To make matters worse, Nepal is also in the midst of political upheaval.

"We have seen how shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, human resources and essential medicines pushed the already under-resourced healthcare response of India over the edge. Now a similar worrying trend is emerging in Nepal," said Mishra.

"This is not the time for Nepal's politicians to indulge in political wrangling and infighting. What the country needs right now is unity and leadership to address the growing crisis."

After experiencing a second wave last year, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are also witnessing a surge with infections picking up sharply. The new Indian variant of coronavirus has been detected in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, prompting authorities to close borders and ban travellers from India, said Amnesty International.

Citing media reports, Amnesty International said that hospital intensive care units in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal were now full or close to capacity.

According to the World Bank, South Asia has 0.6 hospital beds per 100,000 people against an average of five in high-income countries. With high rates of poverty, fragile health infrastructure, poor socio-economic conditions, inadequate social protection systems, limited access to water and sanitation facilities and inadequate living space, the new wave has put millions of lives in the region at risk.

"The disease has exacerbated an already dire healthcare situation in the region. Now, more than ever, South Asia's governments should develop mechanisms for developing surge capacity to manage patient loads, sustain essential services, and reduce the social and economic impacts of the pandemic," said Mishra.

A version of this article appears in the print on May 14, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.