The markets are crowded again. Traffic is jamming the roads. Migrant workers have returned to the cities. And young people are back at schools and universities — many of them for the first time in years.
It isn’t quite how things were before the COVID-19 pandemic — mask mandates still exist in some places — but with infections steadily declining, life in South Asia is returning to a sense of normalcy.
The mental scars from last year's delta-driven surge persist — especially in India, where health systems collapsed and millions likely died — but across the region high vaccination rates and hope that the highly contagious omicron variant has helped bolster immunity are giving people reasons to be optimistic.
While experts agree that opening up was the right move amid falling case numbers, they caution that optimism should be tempered with lessons from the past two years.
Dr. Gagandeep Kang, an infectious disease expert at the Christian Medical College in Vellore city in southern India, said the government should start preparing now for the next medical emergency, “whether that is COVID-19 or something else.” She said that new variants remain a concern, especially if the virus mutates into a more lethal version while retaining its infectiousness.
Those concerns were put aside in Nepal this week, as hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu for a festival of the Hindu god Shiva.
“I had to wait for hours — since morning — and was finally able to visit the temple,” said Keshav Dhakal, a pilgrim.
Sri Lanka's pristine beaches are full again. Young people sway to music and devour spicy curries with friends. Some restrictions remain on the island — masks are mandatory in public places — but the government hopes that foreign tourists will return soon, helping bolster its faltering economy.
The island nation was so short of hard currency during the pandemic that authorities had restricted imports of cars and fertilizer. Now it’s using its dwindling reserves to pay for ever more costly oil needed to keep the economy running.
“I am happy that life has come back,” said Ruwan Chamara, a construction worker who says he has attended several concerts in recent weeks after nearly two years of “living in an open prison.”
The Indian government's focus is also on economic rejuvenation. Apart from the loss of human life, the pandemic also made millions poorer, including many who were among the most vulnerable. The stringent lockdown, announced with a few hours’ notice in 2020, forced thousands of people to walk home to their villages from the cities where they worked. Those workers have now begun returning to cities, as activity picks up at factories and construction sites.
“Because of the lockdowns, we have nothing. If we don't work, we don't eat. If we don't eat, we die,” said Devendra Kumar, a young laborer working at a construction site in New Delhi.
Kuldeep Singh Tomar, 38, who owns a shoe shop in New Delhi, said that sales have increased from around $400 daily in January to twice that in February. Before the pandemic, he said he'd earn over $1,300 daily.
In Bangladesh too, people are cautiously taking off their masks while dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. For many, the virus itself now feels like a minor problem compared to others people are facing, such as inflation and job losses, said Mir Arshadul Hoque, a former student at Dhaka University.
“Overall, I think people have mentally distanced themselves from the coronavirus,” he said.
But no amount of distance can fully eradicate the difficult memories of the past two years: the overwhelmed hospitals, the overflowing cemeteries, the exhausted doctors.
“The last two years were unbearable for us,” said Habibul Bashar, a former captain of Bangladesh's cricket team.
“We definitely don't want to go back to earlier times,” he said.
Al-emrun Garjon in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Binaj Gurubacharya and Updendra Man Singh in Kathmandu, Shonal Ganguly and Rishi Lekhi in New Delhi and Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka contributed to this report.