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SAARC Fighting Corona Together – The Big Picture – RSTV IAS UPSC
Published on March 25, 2020, 6:54 p.m.

SAARC Fighting Corona Together

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TOPIC: General Studies 2

  • India’s Diplomacy
  • International Relations

In News: Prime Minister Modi reached out to the eight-member regional grouping and pitched for a video conference among the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to chalk out a strong strategy to combat coronavirus outbreak. PM Modi's suggestion was backed by all member states of SAARC.

“We can respond best by coming together, not growing apart--collaboration not confusion, preparation not panic.”

Steps taken by India

Covid-19 emergency fund proposed by India: India has pledged $10 million toward a Covid-19 emergency fund

  • With this fund countries can contribute and meet the cost of immediate actions. 
  • Foreign secretaries, through embassies, can coordinate quickly to finalize the concept of this fund and its operations.

Medical Emergency Help:

  • India is also putting together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) nations
  • India has offered to 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.
  • India has set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. The PM offered to share this technology with Saarc partners besides providing training on using it. 
  • Suggested that existing facilities, such as the Saarc Disaster Management Centre, could be used to pool best practices and suggested a common platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemics within South Asia. 
  • Offered Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR) help to coordinate such exercises.

Other Suggestions:

  • Experts could brainstorm on the longer-term economic consequences of Covid-19 and how South Asia can insulate internal trade and local value chains from its impact. 
  • Suggested that common SAARC pandemic protocols could be drawn up and applied in such situations

The Corona Diplomacy

Pakistan: 

  • Pakistan has said it will participate in a video conference of SAARC member countries proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 5,000 people globally. 
  • Pakistan acknowledged that coordinated efforts were needed to minimise the threat posed by the deadly coronavirus. 
  • Raised the Kashmir issue, saying the lockdown there should be ended to help fight the coronavirus outbreak. 
  • Islamabad also sought to get China involved in the SAARC initiative.
  • Mirza proposed that the SAARC secretariat be mandated to establish a working group of national authorities for health information, data exchange and coordination in real time. He proposed a SAARC’s health ministers’ conference and development of regional mechanisms to share disease surveillance data in real time.

Afghanistan: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani referred to challenges stemming from Afghanistan’s open border with Iran, where the outbreak has been severe, and suggested that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) mechanism be used to help deal with the matter. He also proposed modelling diffusion patterns, creation of a common framework for telemedicine and greater cooperation.

Maldives: Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih cited the economic downturn in Maldives owing to the drop in tourists and sought a South Asian response to the crisis. Solih thanked the Indian government for medical assistance and for evacuating nine Maldivians from Wuhan.

Sri Lanka: The Sri Lankan President also referred to economic losses and mentioned steps taken by his government.

Bangladesh: Sheikh Hasina thanked Prime Minister Modi for bringing 23 Bangladeshi students back from Wuhan. She proposed continuance of the dialogue at technical level through video conference by health ministers and secretaries.

Bhutan: Prime Minister Lotay Tshering stated that the pandemic will affect the smaller and vulnerable economies disproportionately. The pandemic does-not follow geographical boundaries, hence it is all the more important for the nations to work together.

India and SAARC

The video summit is significant because, since 2016, SAARC has been mostly inactive. India had refused to attend the 2016 SAARC summit, which was to be held in Islamabad, following the Uri terror attack, which it said was perpetrated by terrorists based in Pakistan. After Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan also withdrew from the meet, the summit was called off.

India - natural Leader: India has assumed leadership of the South Asian charge against COVID-19. This is appropriate given the reported infection levels is still surprisingly low and the commensurate mass mobilisation, precautionary measures and mass evacuations that India carried out. This posited India as a natural leader. Given how irrelevant the South Asia block has become of late, the video conference served more as a diplomatic bolster rather than an actual organisational meeting.

There is more expected out of India…

Given the open borders between Nepal, Bhutan and India – borders that were never really policed and consequently, not equipped for such policing – or the highly porous Bangladesh border, it was a tactical mistake for India to not offer more aid.

  • Bangladesh, for example, has a large migrant population in Italy – possibly the worst affected country right now. Any uncontained fallout will almost certainly spread to India and further on to Nepal and Bhutan. 
  • Similarly, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a highly porous border with the second-worst affected country in percentage terms – Iran. And COVID-19 can break the temperature borders and infect lakhs in populous South Asia.

Connecting the Dots:

  1. Regional cooperation initiatives on a global disaster like this will act as building blocks for re-discovering the virtues of multilateralism. Discuss.