7 September 2020
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and
This quick guide provides an update of the COVID-19 crisis
in South and Southeast Asia, with a focus on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan,
Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Parliamentary Library’s quick guide, COVID-19
in the Region, provides an overview of
the pandemic in Australia’s nearest neighbours—Indonesia, Timor
Leste, Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island countries.
The pandemic reached South Asian countries a little later
than other parts of the world, but the last two months have seen case numbers accelerate.
India now has the world’s fastest growing caseload, recording 4,202,562
cases as at 7 September—second only to the United States. Daily new cases
have reached record highs in recent days, with 91,723 reported on 6 September. According
to a recent serological
survey nearly 30 per cent of residents in New Delhi may have
been exposed to coronavirus infection, suggesting infection numbers are far
higher than officially recorded.
In Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country,
the tally of infections stands at 298,509 and deaths at 6,342. For now the pandemic
appears to have passed its peak: the highest
number of new cases was recorded on 14 June, with daily case numbers having
now fallen to a seven-day average of 411. But analysts
warn that the health system will be overwhelmed if case numbers continue to
Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in
the world, has recorded 325,157
cases and 4,479 deaths, with the highest tally of new cases recorded on 2
July. Daily cases numbers have eased slightly but remain stubbornly high, while
unusually heavy rain since July has displaced
an estimated 1.5 million people, adding to the difficulties of containing
Several South Asian countries have to date recorded lower
than expected numbers of deaths from the virus. Some have
suggested that the region’s younger demographics may be a
contributing factor, in addition to substantial
High rates of poverty, patchy social protection, poor health
infrastructure and wide
economic and social disparities present vast challenges to the effective
implementation of public health measures across the region. The pandemic is already
existing inequalities as the more vulnerable are disproportionately
affected by shutdowns and loss of income. High levels of debt limit
the capacity of governments to mitigate impacts. Lack of nutrition and
access to basic health services—including immunisation—are the overriding
threats, leaving governments grappling with how to lift restrictions while minimising
overall loss of life.
Asia’s economic growth estimates for 2020 show an 8.8 per cent drop as
a result of
COVID-19. The collapse in key labour-intensive export industries such as
garment-making, handicrafts and fisheries as well as the loss of revenue from tourism
and foreign remittances has caused widespread income and job losses. Micro, small
and medium enterprises—the mainstay of South Asian economies—have also
been hit hard, with many at risk of permanent failure.
donor countries have shown little interest in providing significant support
to the region’s response to the crisis. For most countries development
banks have been the major source of finance for the response, although China
has provided a US$500
million loan to Sri Lanka.
argue that the pandemic presents a rare opportunity to address longstanding
inequalities in South Asian countries in regard to access to health and other
basic services. An IMFBlog
post has proposed a ‘new deal’ for informal workers in Asia,
who make up around 80 per cent of the total workforce in the lower income
countries. This would involve:
Getting the basics right. If international assistance
and internal financing can be found, countries in developing Asia should use
this to mount an effective public health response, shoring up public health
infrastructures and expanding coverage, and correcting deficiencies in clean
water, and sanitation.
Setting up more expansive and inclusive safety nets.
Governments could use citizen identification systems and digital technologies,
… so that social protection programs can reach the people most at risk
more quickly and efficiently, with the ability to scale up in times of crisis.
The temptation to introduce universal cash transfers by “giving money to
everybody” should be tempered by the goal of ensuring adequate support
for the most vulnerable at a reasonable fiscal cost.
Investing in digital capacity and bandwidth. …
expanding the availability of digital platforms for education and financial
services would help to ensure greater and more equitable access for all.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is lobbying
business and political leaders to establish a universal
basic income and to support
the flow of remittances, which are
vital to the economies of many lower income countries. The United
Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)
argues that stimulus packages between 7 and 14 per cent of GDP are needed
to cover public health infrastructure needs, social protection and economic
revival in the region, far higher than the packages
of around 1–3 per cent of GDP announced to date.
- Cases have risen rapidly over the
last two months with
numbers doubling every 24 days. Testing has also been scaled up to reach
over 700,000 each day, but remains
low by global standards. Some reports have questioned the
accuracy of some of the tests used. Among the
worst affected states are Maharashtra, Tamil
Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh
- India closed its borders and
lockdown measures from 24 March, suspending schools
and transport, and forcing the immediate closure of businesses.
- The economic impacts of these
closures have been devastating, particularly for disadvantaged
and vulnerable populations such as those in
the informal sector and migrant workers.
120 million jobs have been lost and remittance flows are expected to fall by over 20 per cent in 2020.
The sudden lockdown prompted millions of labourers to leave cities and return
home, with authorities scrambling to set up interstate border controls and
quarantine camps. Lack of food and water
and poor medical facilities in camps posed added
risks. With the partial
re-opening of the rail network in May,
thousands more unemployed workers have left the cities and returned to rural
villages and families to survive.
- The Government assessed the
economic and social costs from what was ‘arguably the world’s
harshest lockdown’ as too severe to
continue, and India began a phased
reopening of its economy in early June.
- Preparedness and response to the pandemic have varied across
states, which have been forced to ‘return
again and again to modified lockdowns to prevent the spread of the disease’.
Kerala was initially identified as a model for a successful response but since July has
experienced a surge of cases. India’s biggest slum, Dharavi in
Mumbai, has attracted attention for containing the virus through an aggressive
focus on ‘tracing,
tracking, testing and treating’, made possible by large scale
community mobilisation. Isolating patients in treatment centres—offering ‘free
meals, vitamins and “laughter yoga” sessions’—is seen
as one of the keys to success.
- But in many places a shortage of health workers and properly
equipped beds, and a rush to admit patients to private rather than public
hospitals, has left
the health system struggling. Health care for those with the virus is highly
unequal, with patients in ‘chronically underfunded’ government
hospitals facing long delays for even basic treatment. Hospital staff have
protested against unsafe working conditions. A severe
impact on other health programs is also evident, with routine vaccination
and tuberculosis treatment showing declines.
- On 12 May Prime Minister Modi announced
a US$260 billion economic rescue package that includes
measures such as a moratorium on debt repayments and credit guarantees to help micro, small and medium-sized enterprises
access collateral-free loans. The national government also announced a US$22.3
billion package aimed at the poor, farmers, women and older people affected
by the lockdown. Additional support
to migrants and farmers includes the provision
of concessional credit to farmers, a credit facility for street vendors and an
expansion of food provision for non-ration card holders (mainly migrants). State
and local governments are also rolling out assistance measures.
Analysts contend that over the next year India will remain in
crisis mode and its economy must be ‘managed alongside
persistent infection risks’. Unemployment was estimated
at 23.5 per cent in April, while the country’s economy
shrunk faster than that of any other major nation, declining 24 per cent in
the last quarter. While the full
scale of policy responses needed will not be clear until the pandemic has
reached its peak, many argue more needs to be done to help low-income families.
have attacked the Government for failing to distribute food stocks while
millions face starvation, arguing that additional measures, while welcome, are
inadequate. The International Labour
Organization (ILO) has estimated that up to 400 million people risk falling into
poverty as a result of economic stoppages.
World Bank has approved US$2 billion in loans for the pandemic response to
assistance to the poor and vulnerable households, while the Asian
Development Bank (ADB) has approved a US$1.5 billion loan.
- Coming on the back of months of protests against the controversial
Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed in late 2019, commentators fear that the
pandemic could stoke religious tensions and moves towards more
authoritarian government. The media has reported that fear,
stigma and blame have led to rising levels of violence against health care
workers, migrants and those suspected of having the virus. Reports have also
emerged of more
than 50 journalists having been arrested, or the subject of police complaints, for COVID-19
signed a new strategic partnership with India in June 2020, with the aim of
closer cooperation on science and technology, defence and maritime security.
- As at 7 September 298,509
cases and 6,342 deaths have been recorded. Slowing numbers of new cases
over the last month and the
absence of an anticipated spike associated with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha
are encouraging. But with one
of the lowest testing rates in the world, experts warn that it is too
early to declare victory.
- Early in the pandemic it was feared COVID-19
could devastate the country, already under stress on many fronts. An
estimated 30 per cent of people live in poverty and lack of sanitation and
over-crowded living conditions are widespread in urban areas. Rural populations
often lack access to basic health care. The pandemic has affected critical
areas of Pakistan’s economy and is exacerbating
an existing financial crisis, with the country’s informal
sector standing to lose the most.
- The Government has been hesitant
to impose heavy restriction measures, warning that a complete lockdown
would endanger the lives of millions of poverty-stricken families, mostly those
of daily wagers and labourers. A
strict lockdown has not been imposed, including on mass
religious gatherings and congregational prayers during Ramadan. Despite the
still accelerating number of cases easing
of restrictions commenced as early as mid-April, while domestic transport
and international flights resumed on 20 June. Initial delays in implementing
effective border quarantine measures are seen as a
major contributing factor to the spread of the virus.
- Fearing that the health system may collapse if case numbers
continues to grow, on 10 June the World Health Organization recommended that
authorities reimpose strict,
intermittent and targeted lockdowns. Since then virus hotspots in 20
major cities have been under a ‘smart lockdown’. The national
response has been led
by a joint civilian-military coordination body, with the health ministry
relegated to a largely advisory role. The ‘smart lockdown’ strategy
appears to have been successful, with some experts arguing that the
country’s decreasing case load can be linked to targeted lockdowns, contact
tracing, awareness campaigns and the resulting behaviour change.
- In July the UN reported that efforts
to contain the spread of the virus were diverting resources away from basic
health services, including reproductive, maternal and child health, and routine
immunisation. Medical supply chains were also being disrupted. However on 11
August UNICEF reported that polio
vaccination campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan had restarted.
- The national government announced
a relief package on 24 March worth around US$7.2 billion, to be implemented
through to 2021.
The virus has infected a number of senior government figures, including Pakistan’s
Health Minister and Foreign Minister.
- The Government’s 2020–21 budget, released in June,
saw an 11.8
per cent increase in defence spending on last year’s budget (almost
18 per cent of the total budget). Health and education spending are set to
increase by only a marginal amount.
- Critics have accused the Government of a
confused and incompetent response, underlining the weakness
of the state. Lack of clear government leadership has led many Pakistanis
live in a state of denial and disbelief’, according to observers,
with media reports of a
steep decline in public trust in the Government’s capacity to manage
the crisis. One analyst notes the increasingly
proactive role played by the military in the national response, which
stepped in to fill ‘the big gap’ left by the Government’s
- The country is heavily indebted to China, among other lenders,
and has recently called for more
debt relief. Analysts argue that such measures do not replace the need
for deep structural reforms of the country’s economy and political
- The International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided an emergency
loan of US$1.39 billion in April, while the World Bank provided $200
million in aid. The
ADB has approved a US$300 million loan for the country’s COVID-19
response while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced a loan
of US$500 million. The Pakistani Government is reportedly seeking additional
loans of US$2 billion from the global financial bodies.
- Faced with an acute shortage of ventilators, close
ally China has sent relief supplies, including ventilators, masks and
testing kits reported to be worth US$55 million. The
US has also pledged aid for Pakistan, including 200 ventilators.
- As at 7 September the country had recorded 325,157
cases and 4,479 deaths. Case numbers eased slightly over July but there are
fears of a resurgence linked to religious holidays. The testing
rate remains very low by international standards.
- Bangladesh’s large population, high poverty rates and weak
health systems magnify the risks posed by the pandemic. As early as 7 April
health workers were reporting
that the health system could not cope. This monsoon season has also seen severe
flooding across half of the country, hampering containment efforts.
- The Government imposed a national
lockdown on 26 March, closing schools, transport and factories, and capping
mass gatherings to 12. Closures have hit the
economy hard, affecting remittance flows, export earnings (particularly
from the ready-made garment sector, which makes up around
80 per cent of exports), and services. As elsewhere the poor are hardest
hit, especially those dependent on daily wages. Around 20 per cent of the
population, or 34 million people, live below the poverty line, with an equal
number estimated to be close to poverty.
The Government announced a
number of stimulus packages to support industry and workers, farmers and
small business owners; widen the social safety net; and increase public
expenditure and monetary supply. They include a US$600 million package to pay
wages of garment workers. Critics argue this
is not enough to cover the 47 per cent of workers receiving no income.
- Bangladesh has one of the lowest ratios of hospital
beds to patients in the world,
with around 1,000 ICU beds for a population of more than 160 million. Analysts
argue that ramping up the country’s testing, isolation and treatment
capacity is critical, as is the provision of financial support for those
without income and ensuring domestic supply chains are kept open to maintain
- The first
cases of COVID-19 were identified on 14 May in the Cox’s Bazar
refugee camps, home to an estimated 900,000
Rohingya refugees. On S September the
WHO reported 4,054 cases of COVID-19 in the Cox’s Bazar district, 101
of which are in the Rohingya camps. In preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak,
treatment and isolation centres have been constructed, information campaigns
rolled out and aid workers trained in the management of the disease. Limited
testing is seen to hamper efforts to detect and contain the disease.
- More than 1,000 Rohingya asylum seekers were stranded
at sea after being caught by border closures in the region prompted by COVID-19. Since then some
boats have been accepted by authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia and others
have returned to refugee camps, with over 300 reported to be confined
in dangerous conditions on Bhasan Char Island. Amnesty International has
urged Australia to discuss the issue with Indonesia, as co-chairs of the
international anti-people smuggling and trafficking forum, the Bali Process.
- The IMF
has approved emergency loans totalling around US$732 million for health and
social protection and to meet balance-of-payments needs; the
World Bank has approved US$100 million in financing to help respond to
the pandemic and strengthen public health systems; and the ADB
is providing a US$500 million loan to help fight the pandemic.
- As at 7 September 38,398 people across all
provinces in Afghanistan had tested positive for COVID-19, while 1,412 had died.
New cases are on a downward trajectory but this may be due to low testing rates:
by 23 August only
100,960 people had been tested out of a population of 37.6 million. Local
government reports suggest hundreds
of people may be dying of suspected COVID-19 without ever seeing a medical
professional. Of the total reported cases, 10
per cent are health workers.
- Health facilities report
a lack of basic protective equipment,
testing kits and medical supplies, and a shortage of trained staff.
- Afghanistan is ranked among the highest risk countries in terms
of health and humanitarian impacts from the virus, with the International
Committee of the Red Cross warning that ‘rising violence and attacks
on healthcare facilities amid the pandemic have put millions of people at
risk’. Medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières announced it was withdrawing from a Kabul hospital after its
maternity ward was targeted by gunmen on 12 May.
- The UN Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs argues
that ‘Complacency and failure to follow public health advice is
creating grave risks in the community with people generally not observing
physical distancing protocols’. One analyst has suggested that the Government has given up trying to contain the
virus and is resting its hopes on herd immunity. But ‘With the role of
herd immunity still uncertain, public numbness is helping Afghanistan get
through the pandemic instead’.
- The Government announced on 6 June
that it was extending
the national lockdown for three months,
and issued new health guidelines. It has also announced a series
of emergency relief packages for the health
sector, economic support and social protection measures. The impact of the
lockdown on the most vulnerable is of broad concern, such as steep rises in the
cost of food.
- The IMF has approved
US$220 million of emergency assistance,
noting that the pandemic is inflicting heavy damage on the country’s
economy. The World Bank has
approved a US$400 million grant to
sustain its economic reforms and help the country manage the
The health impacts from COVID-19 have not been as severe in Southeast
Asia as elsewhere around the globe, and, with some exceptions, most countries
have so far been successful in suppressing the virus. Observers have suggested
a number of reasons
for this success, including early and decisive lockdowns, transparent
communication, and response measures that ‘impose minimal financial costs
on their populations’. Some studies suggest that people in parts of Southeast
Asia may have some
natural immunity to COVID-19, while others note that the region is
experienced in fighting other infectious diseases such as SARS and dengue
fever. Several Southeast Asian countries have also achieved high levels of mask
Concerns have been raised in regard to the erosion of
democracy and human rights across the region, seen particularly in increased
action against government critics. Observers have conceded
however that even the more repressive countries
in the region have ‘displayed impressive levels of transparency about
COVID-19 and the government response’.
The region’s economies are being severely affected by
lockdown measures, disruptions to global and regional supply chains, and the
loss of income from key sectors such as tourism and remittances. As in South
Asia, the informal sector is one of the hardest hit. The UN has warned the
a socio-economic crisis that could reverse decades of poverty reduction.
Analysts have also argued that millions
of migrant workers in the ASEAN region have been neglected in national
policy responses. Support for these workers is critical as economies re-open,
China has been one
of the major providers of COVID-19 related assistance to the region,
supplying medical equipment and technical expertise from early February. Relief
packages were delivered with considerable publicity, prompting the label
‘mask diplomacy’. Foundations linked to billionaire Jack Ma
and state-owned enterprises have also engaged in large donations of medical
supplies. It is difficult
to assess the total value of China’s donations.
For many countries in the region development
banks are the major source of concessional finance (loans) for the COVID-19
response. The US is one of the largest donors, so far earmarking
US$76.9 million to train medical workers, boost screening capabilities
and strengthen national health systems. Non-government assistance has also been
substantial. The EU, Japan and Taiwan have also provided support, while
Singapore and Vietnam have provided assistance to their regional partners.
Vietnam is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) in 2020 and has organised
a number of virtual meetings for member states to share information about
the pandemic. Efforts to establish an ASEAN
travel bubble have been hampered by disparities in the pandemic’s
status, with hardest hit countries Indonesia and the Philippines unable to join
Australia’s assistance to the region includes the
ASEAN-Pacific Infectious Disease Prevention Program ($28 million, 2019–22)
and other support through its new development policy, Partnerships
for Recovery—Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response.
Australia also contributes
to global health and financing organisations that are actively engaged in
supporting the response, including Gavi, The
Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund; the World Bank; ADB and AIIB.
The US Center
for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) tracks COVID-19 policy
responses in Southeast Asia.
- The Philippines recently overtook Indonesia to become the
worst-hit ASEAN country. As at 7 September 237,365 cases and 3,875 deaths
had been recorded, and the weekly average number of daily new cases is 2,856.
- The Government was slow
to respond to the pandemic but from mid-March closed its borders and
introduced quarantine measures. In what was seen as one
of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the region, numerous parts of the
main island Luzon and capital city Manila saw curfews
between 8 pm and 5 am.
- President Duterte has been granted special
temporary powers, which have been reported to affect vulnerable
populations, especially the urban poor, particularly hard. On 1 April Duterte ordered the police
and military to
shoot protesters violating lockdown measures.
- The Government response has been inconsistent
and confusing, critics have argued. Many lockdown measures were lifted on 1
June and the ensuing rise in case numbers ‘has
overwhelmed the public health system and further damaged the economy’.
Further lockdowns have yet to control the virus and media reports suggest the
now been reduced to waiting on a vaccine’.
- The Government announced a sizeable economic
stimulus package and social protection program, worth around 15.6 per cent
of GDP. It has also prevented health workers from going overseas, in an effort
to protect the domestic health system.
- Unemployment has hit record highs with reports
of 27.3 million—nearly half of Philippine adults—out of work.
Remittances account for around 10 per cent of GDP and are expected to take
an unprecedented hit. Protests against job
losses and food shortages have been reported across the country, while the Government
to stifle dissent.
- The country’s GDP
shrank by 16.5 per cent in April–June compared to the same period last
year, falling into the first recession in three decades.
- As at 7 September the country had recorded 1,049 cases
and 35 deaths. Up until mid-July the country had reported no
COVID-related deaths and gone months without a locally transmitted case.
With its proximity to China and suboptimal
healthcare system the low numbers have surprised many.
- A spike in cases in late July looks to have been brought under
control through a
tightly coordinated response from central and local governments, with daily
new cases dropping
to a weekly average of two on 7 September.
- The government response, hailed as one of the most successful in
the world, was
early and effective. Travel restrictions were introduced in late January
and quarantine in mid-February. It used extensive
and strict tracing, testing, isolation and active treatment regimes, and
mandated community protection measures such as social distancing and the use of
face masks. In the face of outbreaks the Government extended its lockdown
to only 12 high-risk locations for up to the maximum
incubation period of two weeks.
strong’ community engagement and national pride in controlling the
pandemic have also been cited as reasons for Vietnam’s success.
- Both economic stimulus packages and social protection measures
have been implemented for the poor and unemployed. An estimated
5 million people had lost their jobs as at mid-April, with workers in the
textile and garment industries suffering the most severe impacts.
- Vietnam was the first
ASEAN country to begin lifting lockdown measures. Given its success in
controlling the epidemic, the World Bank argues that Vietnam’s economy is
placed to bounce back after the pandemic if it can identify new drivers of
growth to consolidate the recovery.
- While it is hard
to verify official data analysts note that the country’s
authoritarian system of government allowed the immediate implementation of
social restrictions and security measures, including the control of social
media. Others have argued that the country’s
COVID-19 success was made
possible by the transparency of information, potentially increasing the
demand for transparency across other areas of government.
- The case of a Scottish pilot who spent more than two months on
life support in Vietnam after contracting COVID-19 made international
headlines when he eventually recovered and was able to return home.
- As at 7 September the country had seen 9,397 cases
and 128 deaths. Very low rates of new infections have been recorded for
- Despite some missteps, analysts acknowledge that the Government’s
been largely effective. Since mid-March the country has been under relatively
strict movement restrictions. Commentators
observe that clear messaging, a well-resourced public service, competent
health leadership and active contact tracing and testing have seen good results,
despite the country’s ‘insecure borders, significant mobile and
vulnerable populations, larger households in denser living conditions and less
than ideal political situations’.
- The Government has announced economic stimulus and social
support packages worth around US$60 billion, or 15.5 per cent of GDP. The
economy has been hit hard, and is expected to contract
by between 3.5 and 5.5 per cent in 2020.
- On 16 April the Government denied
entry to a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees on the basis that they might
spread the virus. Malaysia does not recognise refugee status, but has often
been a destination for Rohingya seeking resettlement. It recently announced
plans to shut its borders and threatened to push
boats back to sea.
- As of 7 September the country had recorded 274 cases
and no deaths. The Government was slow
to respond but declared a state of emergency on 31 March, closing borders, imposing
travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, cancelling national
celebrations, and allocating more resources to the health sector.
- The pandemic has had a severe
impact on Cambodia’s export-oriented sectors, particularly garment
and footwear industries, small-to-medium enterprises (SME) and tourism, which
contributed nearly 33 per cent of GDP in 2018. The World Bank notes that the
collapse of these sectors puts at
least 1.76 million jobs at risk.
- The Government announced a stimulus package of up to US$2
billion for legally registered SMEs only, and US$70 million for the health
sector. Cambodia is receiving significant financial support from donors,
including the World
Bank, the ADB
and a number of bilateral donors, including
rights groups claim that the Government has used its emergency powers
against critics and others for political ends.
- As at 7 September 57,022 cases
and only 27 deaths had been recorded. After initial success at containing
the virus the city state saw an explosion of cases associated with foreign
worker dormitories, which make up the bulk of active cases. The rate of new
infections has eased but community transmission continues at a low level.
second quarter GDP shrank by 12.6 per cent on a year-by-year basis, largely
due to the slump in global demand.
Analysts note signs of recovery but caution that low consumer confidence
and uncertainty over the pandemic and future Government stimulus measures could
all affect economic growth.
An estimated 360 million people in India live below the poverty line. Eighty per
cent of the non-agricultural labour force consists of daily-wage earners in
the informal sector, and 76 per
cent of India’s workforce is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by
May 2020 the UNHCR estimated that 167 countries have partially or
fully closed their borders to contain the spread of COVID-19, and 57 of these
are not making exceptions for people seeking asylum. See H Spinks, ‘Seeking
asylum in the time of coronavirus: COVID-19 pandemic effects on refugees and
people seeking asylum’, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 19 May 2020.
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