Thursday, 28 September, 2023

South Asia Regional Effort To Fight COVID-19

Kushal Pokharel


With the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning of the regional and global impacts of coronavirus, the entire world has become to a standstill. Even the technologically developed Americas and Europe are finding it extremely difficult to curb the disease. The economic projections are worrisome for some considerable time. In light of the above, a video conference of SAARC member states under the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was successfully held recently to find a common strategy on combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was significant not only in sharing the experiences of member states to fight the virus but also for reviving the long stalled deliberations within the SAARC amid outstanding bilateral issues between India and Pakistan.

Positive message
Having said that, the absence of the Pakistani Prime Minister has raised some questions although the Pakistani government sent its another representative to participate in the conference. The enthusiastic participation of member states in the conference has disseminated a positive message of the region willing to collaborate during the time of crisis setting aside political bickering. At a time when SAARC was almost defunct, this gathering has sparked some hope for resuming the SAARC state of affairs in the future.
What is worth mentioning here is that even when Nepal was going through severe crisis in the aftermath of the 2015 April earthquake, the regional support was overwhelming. While the scenario is completely different this time as the virus is a pervasive phenomenon across the globe, let alone SAARC, the spirit of regional solidarity and cohesion has appeared the same in the recent video conference.
South Asia has reported less than 150 coronavirus cases so far. Hence, ‘Prepare but don’t panic’ was a mantra that the Indian PM wanted to give to the entire region. Floating the proposal of setting up a COVID-19 emergency fund, the Indian premier has made initial pledge of $10 million for the same. In his opening address, PM Modi reminded the SAARC nations of the challenging situation of health care access across the region. Another prominent idea was the creation of a research platform to conduct research in mitigating epidemic diseases in the region. In the same way, the Sri Lankan president put forward the need of establishing a ministerial group of SAARC members to discuss and share best practices and coordinate regional issues to jointly face the effect of coronavirus. No less prominent was proposal from the Afghani side to develop a common framework for tele-medicine.
Disproportionate economic impact of the virus on the economy of the small countries was also raised strongly during the conference. With the South Asian region still consisting of developing nations, the economic implication of the pandemic has become a matter of grave concern.
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli attended the forum in the capacity of the chairman of SAARC. Drawing the attention of the leaders towards the efforts being made by Nepal to tackle the pandemic, PM Oli officially stated that till date not even a single case of coronavirus had been detected in the country.
Nepal’s efforts
In his remark at the National Assembly, Minister for Health and Environment Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal recently updated on the steps taken by the government to deal with unprecedented impact of the virus. Provisioning three separate hospitals- Patan, Kirtipur and Teku exclusively for the coronavirus patients, the government has also decided to add 235 ICU beds across hospitals. However, various cases of government’s inadequate preparations at airports and border points are increasingly being reported. But there is no denying that strengthening the existing mechanism to tackle with the mounting challenges of the virus which appear likely in the days ahead with growing impact in neighboring India. To trace the number of foreigners who have visited Nepal in the past few months and performing the coronavirus test should be on the hit list.
The recent video conference should be instrumental in making SAARC alive. In the aftermath of such a significant step that also has provided lessons for other regional groups across the world, SAARC for the prosperity of South Asian people needs to engage its intense deliberations over critical issues facing the region. In this regard, role of Nepal as SAARC’s chair would be pivotal. Bringing the opposing leaders into a negotiating table and resuming the SAARC summit is the need of the hour.

(The author is an independent researcher and a social science faculty.