In an unprecedented initiative, as SAARC leaders held a summit via video-conference to discuss the way forward to fight the coronavirus pandemic, India on Sunday proposed creation of a COVID-19 emergency fund, for which it committed “an initial offer of US$ 10 million”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated the idea of holding a summit via video-conference, was joined by Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health Zafar Mirza.
During the hour-and-a-half-long summit, many of the leaders expressed concern over the economic impact and called for a strategy to deal with the aftermath.
While the SAARC region has reported 174 cases so far, including 107 in India, the region accounts for one-fifth of the world’s population, is densely-populated and doesn’t have robust public health infrastructure.
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“It is clear that we have to work together. We can respond best by coming together not growing apart, collaboration not confusion, preparation not panic,” said Modi. “I propose that we create a COVID-19 emergency fund. This could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of US$ 10 million for this fund. Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions. Our foreign secretaries, through our embassies, can coordinate quickly to finalise the concept of this fund and its operations,” he said.
“We are assembling a rapid response team of doctors and specialists in India, along with testing kits and other equipment. They will be on stand-by, to be placed at your disposal, if required,” he said. “We can also quickly arrange online training capsules for your emergency response teams. This will be based on the model we have used in our own country, to raise the capacity of all our emergency staff,” Modi said.
“We had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. We could share this disease surveillance software with SAARC partners, and training on using this,” he said.
“Looking ahead, we could create a common research platform, to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within our South Asian region. The Indian Council of Medical Research can offer help coordinating such an exercise,” he said. “We can also ask our experts to brainstorm on the longer-term economic consequences of COVID-19, and how we can insulate our internal trade and our local value chains from its impact,” he said.
Modi said the “nodal experts” from all the countries can hold a video-conference a week later to follow up on the suggestions.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Zafar Mirza took the opportunity to score political points, as he raised the issue of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in his final remarks. He said it was a “matter of concern” that coronavirus cases had been reported from J&K. “In view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown in the disputed territory must be lifted immediately, opening up communications and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, and allow distribution of medical supplies and enable containment and relief efforts to proceed,” said Mirza, who has worked as a deputy director (health systems) at the World Health Organisation.
Indian government sources said Pakistan was trying to “politicise” a humanitarian issue.
“We need to take a proactive approach. We should not wait for emergencies to happen and outbreaks to take place and then start our preparations,” said Mirza, as he backed the proposal on holding a SAARC health ministers’ conference at an appropriate time.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, while sharing his views on the “unknown territory” the world now finds itself in and the need for a common cooperative framework, suggested creating a model framework for telemedicine, ensuring availability of medicines, SAARC satellite for tele-education, and asked India to coordinate between SCO and SAARC to learn from China’s experience. He also pointed out how Afghanistan was affected due to its border with Iran.
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said tourist arrivals had already dropped by over 20%, and the figure was expected to go up to 35%. “There is a profound need to formulate an economic relief package targeted for the affected countries. A comprehensive regional strategy to fight COVID-19 should include long-term recovery plan for the region,” he said.
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also recounted the measures taken by his government, which included cancelling visa on arrivals and closing down educational institutions. But, as an economy dependent on tourism from European countries, he said, “I strongly recommend SAARC leaders to formulate a mechanism to assist our economies to tide over this very difficult period.”
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina said all SAARC countries “need to cooperate and collaborate closely to fight this enemy”. “We are ready to share our capacity and expertise, as well as the best practice, including providing logistics support, if required, to continue this dialogue at technical levels or health ministers,” she said.
Nepal PM K P Sharma Oli said it was a “timely and important” decision to gather all SAARC leaders. And, while recalling steps taken in Nepal, including cancellation of all mountaineering expeditions, he said: “We may encourage medical centres, research institutions and health workers in the region to build a good network for sharing experiences, research findings and best practices which are critically associated with the prevention and treatment of this deadly disease.” He also said they “need to ensure a smooth supply of essential medicines” and protective equipment in the region.
Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, who is a trained doctor himself, said it was an “uphill task”. “Aftermath of this disease will also affect the smaller and vulnerable economics more badly than the better ones. So, as we fight and as we try to contain this disease, we are also concerned about the economic outcomes of this disease.”
“We should evolve common SAARC pandemic protocols which can be applied on all our borders as well as within our borders in such situations. This can help to prevent such infections from spreading across our region, and allow us to keep our internal movements free,” Modi said.
This was the first time SAARC leaders met over video conference, after the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014.
India had abandoned the SAARC as a concept after the terror attacks in Pathankot and Uri in 2016, and — along with others like Afghanistan and Bangladesh — boycotted the summit in Pakistan in 2016. This led to all movement being stalled on the SAARC dialogue process in the last three-and-a-half years.
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