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RSTV: THE BIG PICTURE- SAARC: FIGHTING CORONA TOGETHER

RSTV

 

Introduction:

Pakistan participated in a video conference of SAARC member countries proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus. Pakistan responded positively to PM Modi’s proposal, saying it was ready to participate in the conference, acknowledging that coordinated efforts were needed to minimise the threat posed by the deadly coronavirus.

India showing Leadership:

  • In the spirit of collaboration, Prime Minister Modi proposed creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Fund based on voluntary contributions from all the countries, with India making an initial offer of US $10 million for the fund. The fund can be used by any of the partner countries to meet the cost of immediate actions.
  • He informed that India is assembling a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists, along with testing kits and other equipment, which will be on stand-by, to be placed at the disposal of the countries, if required.
  • Prime Minister also offered arranging for online training capsules for the emergency response teams of the neighbouring countries and sharing of software behind India’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to help trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. He suggested that existing mechanisms like  SAARC Disaster Management Centre can be used to pool in best practises.
  • He also suggested creation of a common Research Platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within the South Asian region. He suggested further brainstorming by experts on the long-term economic consequences of COVID-19, and how best to insulate internal trade and local value chains from its impact.
  • Prime Minister said the guiding mantra for India has been “prepare, but don’t panic”. He laid down the proactive steps taken, including a graded response mechanism, screening those entering the country, public awareness campaigns on TV, print and social media, special efforts to reach out to the vulnerable groups, ramping up of diagnostic facilities and developing protocols for each stage of managing the pandemic.
  • He said that India has not only successfully evacuated almost 1400 Indians from different countries but also evacuated some of the citizens of the neighbouring countries in accordance with the ‘neighbourhood first policy’.
  • He urged the seven nations to fight the scourge jointly.
  • President Ashraf Ghani said that the greatest vulnerability of Afghanistan is an open border with Iran. He proposed modelling diffusion patterns, creation of common framework for telemedicine and greater cooperation amongst the neighbouring countries.
  • President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih thanked the Indian government for the medical assistance from India to deal with COVID-19 cases and for evacuating nine Maldivians from Wuhan. He highlighted the negative impact of COVID-19 on tourism in the country and its impact on the nation’s economy. He proposed closer cooperation between the health emergency agencies of the countries, formulation of economic relief package and long term recovery plan for the region.
  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recommended that SAARC leaders work together to help economy tide over the difficult period. He also recommended establishment of a SAARC Ministerial level group to share best practises and coordinate regional matters on combating COVID-19.
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina thanked Prime Minister Modi for bringing 23 Bangladeshi students back from Wuhan along with Indian students during the quarantine period. She proposed continuance of the dialogue at technical level through video conference between Health Ministers and Secretaries of the region.
  • Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli apprised the SAARC leaders of the steps taken by Nepal to combat COVID-19 . He said that the collective wisdom and efforts of all the SAARC nations could help in devising  a robust and effective strategy to deal with the pandemic.
  • Prime Minister Doctor Lotay Tshering said the pandemic does-not follow geographical boundaries, hence it is all the more important for the nations to work together. He said the pandemic will affect the smaller and vulnerable economies disproportionately, talking about the economic impact of COVID-19.
  • Doctor Zafar Mirza proposed that SAARC Secretariat be mandated to establish a working group of national authorities for health Information, data exchange and coordination in real time. He proposed hosting SAARC Health Ministers’ conference and development of regional mechanisms to share disease surveillance data in real time.

SAARC:

  • SAARC refers to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – which groups together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives. Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka besides India.
  • Born in the mid 1980s, the grouping has little to show for itself given that progress on issues like regional integration and connectivity has been slow mainly due to infighting between India and Pakistan.
  • Pakistan was to host a summit of SAARC leaders in 2016 but India,Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh pulled out citing Pakistan’s support to terrorism as not conducive for regional cooperation.
  • No summit of SAARC has been held since

Opportunity for revival of SAARC:

  • The meet was important from quite a few perspectives.
  • First, it is a crisis turned opportunity by bringing together countries of the region for the first high-level SAARC meet since 2014 by providing directional leadership with health diplomacy as it core objective– an agenda which none can refuse.
  • Moreover, this was the organisation’s first meeting in four years after India had declined to meet in Islamabad in 2016 citing cross-border terrorism (Uri Attack) as the basis. Then, other countries of SAARC like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan had also pulled out leaving SAARC directionless.
  • Second, India’s decision to hold the conference despite its open reservations against talking to Pakistan reflects a befitting attitude of a leader-nation that has risen above bilateral animosity to engage all nations to think of the larger regional good.
  • It shows its mature understanding that global challenges require coordinated response. This was evident when India chose to ignore Pakistan’s use of the SAARC forum to rake up the Kashmir issue, even though the meet had a different and a much more pressing agenda.
  • Major countries of the world including the US and Russia have lauded India’s efforts towards preparing South Asia for a collective response.

Conclusion:

  • India is culturally and civilizationally Indo- Centric region. Measures that India takes to combat the disease could be compromised if all countries in South Asia are not on the same page.
  • India should take forward humanitarian measures. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate.
  • With Indian leadership, there will be no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome.
  • At various levels, governments and people are trying their best to combat it. South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy.
  • Perhaps for the first time, “most disconnected region in the world” is seen as a respite in the light of the searing contagion that has brought the world to a screeching halt. But that very same crisis presents the region with an opportunity like never before. Even when a global crisis looms large, India has depicted that the SAARC spirit should be sustained and the organisational platform can be used to foster regional cooperation.