The Pulse | Diplomacy | Politics | South Asia

Can a Global Pandemic Resuscitate SAARC?

SAARC has been reactivated as South Asia braces for the worst of COVID–19.

Bansari Kamdar
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Can a Global Pandemic Resuscitate SAARC?
Credit: Twitter/ Narendra Modi (screenshot)

On March 15, 2020, in what came as a surprise to many, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Emergency Fund to combat the coronavirus disease (COVID–19) epidemic in South Asia with an initial offer of $10 million from India over a video conference with senior leaders from the seven other members.

Over the week, India has released $1 million of the fund and sent various medical supplies, surgical masks, sanitizers, testing equipment, and more to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, according to the Economic Times. Five of the other seven SAARC nations have also demonstrated their willingness for a joint regional effort by adding around $3.5 million to the emergency fund.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Maldives have contributed to the fund – $1 million from Afghanistan, $1.5 million from Bangladesh, $200,000 from Maldives, $100,000 from Bhutan, and $835,657 from Nepal. Sri Lanka and Pakistan have not announced any support yet.

More than one-fifth of the world’s population resides in South Asia making it the most populous and densely populated area in the world. Cases are fast growing among the SAARC countries, with Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka marking dozens of confirmed COVID-19 patients through March.

As the number of COVID-19 cases started swelling across the region, the leaders of the seven out of the eight SAARC member states and Pakistan represented by its health minister, attended the video conference last week to coordinate and plan a joint regional response to the global pandemic – breathing life back into a hibernating SAARC.

SAARC and a Revival of South Asian Integration?

This is the first high-level SAARC meeting since 2014. India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan pulled out from the 2016 SAARC Summit in Islamabad after the Uri attacks in India by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization. The relationship between India and Pakistan has only deteriorated further since 2016.

Despite porous borders and long historic ties, South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world with bitter rivalries and long-held resentments. Established in 1985, SAARC, the only regional body encompassing the whole area, has been largely dormant and symbolic since its formation. This is mainly due to tensions between its members, particularly the bitter relationship between India and Pakistan.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been lauded for his shift back to engagement with SAARC over his other preferred regional organizations like Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) that exclude Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi’s willingness to put his politics aside has posited India as a leader in the fight against coronavirus in South Asia.

Even before the video conference, New Delhi was involved in regional efforts to combat COVID-19, bringing back citizens from neighboring nations like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It also offered to bring back Pakistani students from Wuhan – an offer that Islamabad refused. India was also providing medical supplies and medical teams to the island nation of Maldives.

On the other end, Islamabad’s inclination to make Jammu and Kashmir a major issue in any attempts at engagement was reflected in Pakistan’s State Minister of Health Zafar Mirza calling for an immediate lifting of the “lockdown” in Jammu and Kashmir during the SAARC conference. Complete internet access continues to be restricted in parts of India’s Jammu and Kashmir after India abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted special status to the state last August.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar slammed Pakistan for bringing up Kashmir, saying Mirza “misused” the video conference.

“A crisis of this magnitude does not recognize borders. In this spirit, the prime minister had called the SAARC video-conference on coronavirus. The platform was not political, but humanitarian. They misused it,” said Kumar.

The SAARC Charter demands unanimity in the decision-making process. As long as India and Pakistan keep the organization hostage to their rivalries, the best SAARC can hope for is temporary issue-based cooperation. Nevertheless, coronavirus will also have long-term economic implications for the nations that many nations urged SAARC to address.

During the SAARC video conference, a major concern raised by Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka was the impact that the closing of borders would have on tourism, transfer of medical supplies and migrant transfers. A quarter of the Maldives economy relies on tourism and it has already seen a 22.8 percent drop in tourism in March. Nepal has suspended permits for migrant workers and migrant remittances make up 25 percent of Nepal’s GDP. India proposed a follow-up discussion of trade and economic officials to assess the impact of the epidemic. As of now, below 5 percent of the trade of SAARC members is within.

When the pandemic subsides, the rivalry between India and China over influence in South Asia will resurface. India’s strategy for a joint regional action has received prompt support from its neighbors and its extension of medical supplies and medical teams to the neighborhood has earned it praise by other SAARC members. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if it will be able to lead SAARC into greater economic integration.

South Asia and Coronavirus

Many of the SAARC nations share boundaries with countries most affected with COVID-19 – Pakistan and Afghanistan neighbor Iran in the west where the deaths are among the highest in the world; and Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan sharing boundaries with China, where the virus originated, has infected tens of thousands of people and resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are flooded with refugees from Iran, one of the worst hit countries globally. Afghanistan is also facing a divided government, a resurgent Taliban, and poor infrastructure ravaged by decades of war making it difficult for the country to curb the flow of these refugees. At least 64,000 Afghan workers and refugees have returned from Iran in 2020.

While the number of coronavirus cases in the South Asian countries remain low in comparison to other nations, there is a rising concern regarding under-testing of the COVID-19 cases, making these countries more susceptible to large human costs in the future. For instance, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) only 17,237 individuals out of a population of ‎over 1.3 billion people had been tested for the virus as of March 22, 2020 – one of the lowest rates in the world.

In comparison, South Korea, which has managed to get the spread of the virus under control, is testing 15,000 people daily

Given the close quarter living conditions in South Asian towns and cities, there is a greater likelihood of the disease spreading exponentially once contracted and a wide-scale lockdown will be difficult to impose in these nations.

Amid push for a national lockdown after an exponential rise in the cases over the past week, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated that state-imposed curfew is not possible as 25 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line and relies on daily wages.

Sri Lanka imposed a police curfew over the weekend through March 24, 2020. Around 340 people have been arrested by Monday for defying the curfew.

In India, Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly urged for social distancing and also declared a nationwide curfew on March 22, 2020. The ‘janta curfew’ was followed by the people across the nation with many taking a moment out of their self-quarantine to applaud, ring bells, and blow conch shells to express gratitude for the nation’s healthcare workers. However, a continuous lockdown may rapidly worsen India’s economic slowdown.

Most South Asian nations also lack the health infrastructure to combat a wide-scale pandemic. China has 4.3 beds per every 1000 people, India has just 0.5 beds for the same on average. Afghanistan’s health infrastructure has been devastated by decades of war and there is only one laboratory that can test for virus. The archipelago of the Maldives is heavily reliant on other nations for medical supplies.

Given the highly permeable borders of the region, the high population density and lack of public health infrastructure in the region, a joint response may be the best course of action in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Even so, a revival of SAARC beyond the pandemic seems as uncertain as these times.