COVID-19 in South Asia: Lessons from a time of upheaval

Call for papers for a special issue of Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy

Editors: Alex Winter-Nelson (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), Sudha Narayanan, Kalyani Raghunathan, Shahidur Rashid (International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), South Asia)

  1. The Context  

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated policy discourse since the first quarter of 2020, when the health and economic impacts of the virus began to affect countries across the globe. Concerns around viral transmission and overburdened health systems caused many governments to adopt strict containment strategies to slow down the spread of the virus, including restrictions on the movement of people and goods that led to massive supply chain disruptions and slowdowns in several economic sectors. Unsurprisingly, the poorest and most marginalized people were worse hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic. In several developing countries, COVID-19 and associated public policies wiped out hard-earned economic, social, and health and nutrition related gains that had been achieved over the past decade.

Within this global context, countries in South Asia have emerged with both successes and severe challenges. Even as overall aggregate growth faltered in 2020, the agricultural sector in several countries saw positive growth; this, combined with low official rates of infection and an expansion of social safety nets, suggested a possible early economic recovery. Unfortunately, the region was hit by a devastating second wave of COVID in the second quarter of 2021 that caused a dramatic spike in rates of infections and death and the reinstitution of lockdown-type restrictions across the region. Through these successive waves, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in several South Asian economies that make them particularly susceptible to shocks of this kind: low levels of urbanization and development, high rates of internal and external migration and subsequent dependence on remittance incomes, labour-intensive industries, precarious, underfunded health systems, high rates of food insecurity and malnutrition, severe gender disparities, uncoordinated agricultural markets, and income and wealth inequalities. Developing resilience against future shocks of this kind will require deeper structural changes.

  1. Why propose a special issue?     

The second wave of COVID-19 in South Asia has stalled both national and global development agendas. Economically, South Asia was the fastest growing region in the world from 2014 until the onset of COVID-19, with clear signs of structural transformation— rising real wages, a declining share of agriculture in GDP, and a sizeable non-farm sector that was steadily growing in prominence. Examples of transforming economies facing shocks of the magnitude of COVID-19 are rare in history, and we know very little about what it will take for countries in the region to return to their pre-pandemic trajectories.

What is indisputable is that it is crucial that these economies recover as fast as possible. Given the size of South Asia’s population, the proportion of this population that is undernourished, its climate vulnerability and the limiting structural factors outlined above, the way the region responds to this and possible future pandemics will have broad and enduring consequences on global development targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The central motivation for this special issue is to publish a set of micro-econometric and simulation analyses that are grounded in primary data and capture critical aspects of COVID-19 in South Asia, with the central aim of informing future policies. We believe that consolidating analyses that draw on a range of data collection efforts into a single special edition will provide the benefits of synthesis while raising the profile of this important work.

  1. Thematic areas, review process, and outreach   

The research and analysis needed to capture the full severity and economic development implications of COVID-19 exceed what can be contained in one special issue. The focus of this proposed issue will be on empirically rich, forward-looking, applied policy analyses related to South Asia. An outline of the themes is presented in Table 1. The collection of papers will begin with a cross country analysis of macroeconomic and fiscal policy implications of COVID-19, it will then focus on key elements of food system transformation.

In bringing together this issue, we hope to anchor the large body of scholarship that has grown out of this crisis and offer concrete recommendations to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable and already marginalized communities.


We invite original contributions that meet the following guidelines.


Required characteristics

Preferred characteristics

1. Length and structure

Manuscripts should be between 5000 and 6000 words, excluding references and appendices, and should contain the following sections: Abstract (150 words), Introduction, Data, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion.

Data and documentation made publicly available.

2. Geographical focus

Manuscripts must be focussed on one or more of the following countries: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and the Maldives.

Cross-country papers are especially encouraged, as are those from lesser-represented countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

3. Themes

All papers must deal explicitly with the impact of the pandemic, have the resilience of systems or economies as a central theme, and draw clear, forward-looking suggestions for policy.

In addition, papers should address one or more of the following topical areas:

  1. Consequences of the pandemic on structural transformation, agricultural transition of economy, and broad policy initiatives.
  2. Food security policy responses, including (but not limited to)
    • Social safety net programs, their performance and role in mitigating the economic impacts of the pandemic;
    • Labour market linkages, public policy interventions for livelihoods and employment, policy interventions related to migration, and the role of remittances.
    • Role of access to digital technology and importance of digital service delivery in mitigating economic effects of pandemic in agricultural households.
  3. Health systems: Adequacy and performance of the health system infrastructure; stories of successes (or failures) and their implications for future investments and planning.
  4. Agricultural value chains: disruptions in domestic and global supply chains and public policy responses to mitigate the shocks; resilience of value chains and capacity of households to build resilience through use of commodity markets.

We especially encourage papers that:

  • draw on data from multiple countries in the region,
  • address disadvantaged or marginalized members of society (along gender, caste, religion, socioeconomic status and similar lines).


4. Methods

Papers must draw on primary or secondary data sources for their analysis. Purely theoretical papers will not be considered. Papers using primary data collected during the pandemic should demonstrate that the sampling strategy and study design adequately support the research question.

Mixed-methods studies are welcome, especially those supplementing primary or secondary data with insights from in-depth case studies.

Innovative uses of existing secondary datasets (e.g., mobility data, nightlights, GIS information, combining multiple secondary datasets), and innovative methods (e.g., the exploitation of natural experiments, simulations, structural modelling) are encouraged.

Emphasis will be given to those papers whose methods adequately address issues of causality. Descriptive papers using cross-sectional data are not encouraged, unless answering a novel question. Authors of such papers will be expected to make a strong case for inclusion.



  • To be considered for inclusion in the special issue, authors are requested to submit an extended abstract of no more than 8 pages (maximum of 4 figures and 4 tables).
  • This extended abstract should broadly follow the manuscript sections detailed above and must provide enough information on data and methods to allow the selection committee to make an informed decision on the originality, importance, and feasibility of the proposed manuscript.
  • Authors are requested to provide a cover letter describing in brief how their proposed manuscript will meet the required and preferred characteristics listed above, as applicable.
  • Cover letters and extended abstracts should be sent to Kalyani Raghunathan ( no later than midnight EDT on February 14, 2022. Submission emails should carry the title “COVID-19 in South Asia: Special Issue Submission.”
  • Any questions/clarifications relating to the scope of the call or the submission process should be directed to Kalyani Raghunathan (, with the title “COVID-19 in South Asia call: queries”. Questions must be received by January 17, 2022, for a response prior to the submission closing date.