Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to hold a video conference of SAARC leaders to jointly devise methods to combat COVID 19, declared as a pandemic by WHO, was unique. It engaged the immediate attention of the South Asian region. Since all the countries of the region are extremely populous, the danger of the spread of the virus is real. To combat the spread is equally arduous. It needs to be noted that the virus that originated in China has resulted in more than 7000 deaths worldwide. The novel coronavirus has impacted with many countries; cancelling flights, shutting down public places and urging citizens to stay indoors. India has evacuated its citizens from the worst affected regions like China, Italy and Iran along with citizens of Bangladesh and Maldives following its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. India has been following stringent checking at its airports and quarantining suspected virus infected patients at various facilities that has been opened for the purpose.
Compared to other parts of the world, South Asia has seen fewer cases. India has reported more than 100 cases, followed by Pakistan 55, Maldives 8, Afghanistan 7, Sri Lanka 3, Bangladesh 2, Nepal and Bhutan each one. Most of the countries of the region, except for Sri Lanka and Maldives, rank lower in the Global Burden of Disease Report published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. An effort to combat the pandemic by sharing the experiences of each nation therefore becomes important. Taking into account that each country may not have the economic ability to deal with the unfolding health crisis, the proposal to set up a COVID-19 Fund by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a welcome step. India announced a contribution of US$ 10 million to start a regional fund. Contribution to this fund is voluntary and member states can use it to meet the cost of immediate actions. India also proposed to use the existing mechanism of SAARC Disaster Management Centre while evolving common SAARC Pandemic Protocols to apply to the borders and also internally.
Announcement of the video conference was welcomed by all member states of SAARC. Except for Prime Minister of Pakistan who deputed his Special Assistant on Health; other Heads of States or Government of the member countries participated in the video-conferencing. They not only shared their countries experiences in dealing with the pandemic but they also proposed means to take forward this cooperation in the health sector.
This sentiment was echoed by the Maldives President Ibrahim Solih who said no country can fight this pandemic on its own. Emphasising on the economic challenge such epidemics pose in terms of massive infrastructure for testing and isolation, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse emphasised sharing of experiences and best practices to tide over the challenge that COVID-19 poses. President of Afghanistan, Dr. Ashraf Ghani underlined a common framework for tele-medicine while emphasising closing of borders may not be a solution for some of the landlocked countries. Pakistan proposed exchange disease surveillance data in real time emphasising that national and local response as critical to stop further spread of the disease. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed video conferences of SAARC Health Ministers and Secretaries to coordinate efforts to jointly combat the pandemic. Both Nepal and Bhutan also emphasised and welcomed India’s proposal to jointly work to fight the health crisis that COVID-19 has caused.
Inviting the SAARC leaders to join the video conference also reflects that India’s keenness to work with other leaders of the region. India already has established Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal (IDSP) to trace possible virus carriers and their primary contacts and was willing to share the software with other countries of the SAARC region to help them to keep the track record of COVID-19 affected people and proposed common research platform. This impromptu video conference proposed by the Indian Prime Minister and enthusiastic response by SAARC leaders reflect that a regional response would be an important factor in jointly dealing with the health crisis.
Script: Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik, Strategic Analyst on South Asia