Saturday, 25 March, 2023

SAARC's Concerns Over Coronavirus

Dr Kundan Aryal


The world is at a critical point in the global response to COVID-19. At this juncture, everyone needs to get involved in this massive effort to keep the world safe. We, the people of the world across all the political boarders, are assured that the authorities will get success to harness the power of science and the public will cooperate with them by taking needful percussions. Nepal's government and the people are learning from the other countries and taking the steps to contain it. The big enemy of the moment for the humankind is none other than the COVID-19.

Diplomatic surprise
Last week, nearly after four years of stalemate, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to call for comprehensive action by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) nations to tackle the spread of the pandemic. He made a call to SAARC member states to fight coronavirus. After consciously ignoring the regional body for nearly four years, Indian PM had dealt a kind of diplomatic surprise by reaching out to the eight-nation grouping and urging its leaders to come together to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
The last SAARC Summit was held on November 26 and 27, 2014 in Kathmandu. The next summit, which was scheduled to take place in November 2016 in Islamabad, was postponed amid tensions between India and Pakistan over the attack on a military camp in Uri. The Indian Army suffered its worst loss in 20 years in the attack on September 18, 2016. Subsequently, India expressed its inability to participate in the summit. The summit was called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to participate in the Islamabad meet.
Nepali PM KP Sharma Oli, currently also the chair of SAARC, responded to Modi with welcome remarks for chalking out a strong strategy by the leadership of the SAARC nations to fight coronavirus. He stated that his government is ready to work closely with SAARC member states to protect the citizens from the deadly disease. Subsequently, an in a video-conference of SAARC members last week, Indian PM Modi proposed setting up a COVID-19 emergency fund with India committing USD 10 million initially for it, and asserted that the best way to deal with the pandemic was by coming together and not coming apart.
In the backdrop of India's reservation about SAARC and subsequent focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Modi's recent initiative could be taken as a surprising step. India has maintained that it will not be able to move on SAARC unless Pakistan changed its stance on Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, the 20th SAARC Summit has yet to be organised.
Modi's appeal to the leadership of SAARC nations to devise a credible strategy to fight coronavirus and subsequent video conference has given space to many to think about the relevancy and importance of the regional organisation. As Modi came to realise that together, the SAARC leadership can set an example for the world, and contribute to a healthier planet, the Secretary General of the regional organisation has recently expressed hopes that the 20th SAARC Summit will take place this year.
One cannot ignore the fact that COVID-19 is a truly global problem, it requires truly global solutions. History of human civilisation is the struggles and upheaval on many fronts as in the area of establishing good health and well-being. Novel coronavirus reminds us of Sustainable Development goals which were declared with the determination to protect the planet from degradation by all nations of the world in September 2015. The third goal, out of major 17, aims to ensure healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages. The third target of the SDG in its third goal states that by 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases. At this moment such a noble quest has been facing severe blow. We required to be focused on the way of solutions to the current crisis. In this regard Modi's initiative is commendable.
There were speculations that there will be no plausible logic to indicate that SAARC will be revived in the future. There were questions over manifest and latent reasons for India's wish to make SAARC defunct. Speculations were that Pakistan is a manifest reason and the latent reasons are that India wants to evade its financial and political liabilities to the SAARC. Likewise, a good amount of analysis could be found over the virtual conference held among the SAARC leaders with special reference to the enmity between India and Pakistan who are indulged in blame game over the lack of cooperation and coordination among the SAARC member states. But the recent development needs to be seen in the global perspective and with regards to the global requirement of strategy to combat COVID-19.

Proactive steps
The population of South Asia is about 1.891 billion or it is home for about one-fourth of the world's population. Virtual conference of SAARC leaders, Modi's offers and Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina's offer to host a regional public health institution came at a time when many public health experts were in fear. The cause of their worry was that overburdened healthcare systems in South Asia will not be able to cope with a major outbreak. Thus it is not important whether the Indian PM's initiative to combat the pandemic threat is surely a change in stance concerning the SAARC. It is the matter of developing a strategy of survival of human beings in this region.
The outbreaks have been identified in a growing number of locations internationally. South Asia is also in a vulnerable situation. Therefore we hope the SAARC will take proactive steps with a graded response in a smart approach to tackle this unprecedented situation.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)