Sharing details of India’s preparedness to prevent and contain the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday told leaders of SAARC member countries that India recognised it was “still in an unknown situation” and “cannot predict how the situation will unfold”.
At a teleconference between the leaders of SAARC member nations on Sunday evening, called at Modi’s initiative, suggested greater cooperation within the grouping, including sharing of experiences and best practices by their respective health experts.
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his Maldivian counterpart Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, and Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering, all three of whose countries depend heavily on tourism sector that is hit the hardest in recent weeks, called for a common fight not just against COVID-19 but also its economic fallout.
Modi suggested SAARC member nations should set up an emergency fund to combat COVID-19, and offered $10 million as India’s initial contribution.
SAARC, or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, has seven member states, but has mostly been dormant, especially over the past six years, because of differences between India and Pakistan. New Delhi has instead tried to promote BIMSTEC, which does not include Pakistan, to rival SAARC. However, the challenge of COVID-19 spreading in the region seems to have forced South Asian neighbours to think of common strategies.
While the heads of state or government of other SAARC member states participated in the teleconference, Pakistan was represented by Zafar Mirza, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Mirza, who is also the state minister of health of Pakistan, said it was a matter of concern that COVID-19 had been reported from Jammu & Kashmir.
He said the “lockdown” must be lifted immediately in view of the health emergency. Mirza also called for pooling of resources, technical expertise and financing.
The Bhutanese PM said when the world was fighting one common disease, it was important to leave behind the differences.
Rajapaksa said Sri Lanka’s economy, particularly tourism, had taken a serious blow, which was just about recovering after last year’s terrorist attacks in his country. He asked SAARC leaders to formulate mechanism to assist “our economies to tide over the difficult period”.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani suggested common frameworks for telemedicine between SAARC countries and flagged how the closing of borders would result in problems of availability of food, medicines and basic goods.
Ghani also asked India, since it is a key SAARC member and also a member of China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to coordinate between SAARC and SCO and much of China’s experience in combating the virus is replicable in South Asia.
In his opening statement, Modi said: “We fully recognise we are still in an unknown situation. We cannot predict with certainty how the situation will unfold despite our best efforts.
You must also be facing similar concerns. This is why it would be most valuable for all of us to share our perspective.” Modi said SAARC region had so far listed fewer than 150 cases, but it needed to remain vigilant as it was home to nearly one-fifth of all humanity and densely populated. “We can respond best by coming together, not growing apart, collaboration not confusion, preparation not panic.”
“As developing countries, all of us have significant challenges in terms of access to healthcare facilities,” Modi said.
He said SAARC member countries’ “people to people ties are ancient, and our societies are deeply inter-connected. Therefore, we must all prepare together, we must all act together, and we must all succeed together.”
The Indian prime minister said India’s guiding mantra in the fight against coronavirus is “prepare, but don’t panic”. Modi detailed the steps that India has taken in its fight. He said SAARC member states have made specific requests, including about medicines and equipment, which his team has noted.
Several members, including Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, called for a common research platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within the region. She said health ministers, secretaries and others should have similar teleconferences.
Modi offered to share the disease surveillance software that India has developed. He said a rapid response team of doctors and specialists in India with testing kits and other equipment would be at the disposal of its neighbours.
Pakistan’z Mirza said: “While hoping for the best, we have to prepare for the worst”. Ghani also spoke about the fight against COVID-19 entering “unknown territory”. He sought the availability of SAARC satellite for tele-education.