As a growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases were being reported across South Asia, leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) came together on March 15 for a virtual meeting to discuss and coordinate efforts toward a regional response to the deadly outbreak. The meeting came just two days after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to moot video conferencing among the region’s leaders to discuss the health emergency. The virtual meeting was attended by the heads of government of seven out of the eight member states, with Pakistan being represented by its health minister. It was also attended by the secretary general of SAARC as well as the director of the SAARC Disaster Management Center. The latest engagement was not only a timely intervention at the regional level toward combating the viral outbreak, but also a positive rejuvenation of the SAARC framework.
Over the past several weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak, which first began in China’s industrial hub of Wuhan, has taken a toll on healthcare systems and economic activity across the world. With confirmed cases reported in all South Asian countries, the virus is no longer knocking at the door — it has made a decisive entry into the region. As of March 17, the total confirmed cases in the eight SAARC countries put together crossed 380, a fourfold increase in the span of a week. Two deaths have been reported so far, both in India, although both were older adults whose infection was traceable. The penetration of COVID-19 into South Asia is particularly concerning, given the high population density and over-stretched healthcare infrastructure in this part of the world. Nevertheless, despite these constraints — coupled with geographic proximity to China — South Asia has fared better so far than what most observers expected.
Leading the efforts in the region has been India, which has enforced a containment lockdown. Over the past few weeks, the country’s health ministry has ramped up efforts toward contact tracing and monitoring of the health status of foreign arrivals, particularly from the virus-hit countries of Europe and Asia. On March 11, the authorities announced the suspension of incoming visas for a month, strongly discouraged outbound travel, and imposed a 14-day quarantine for incoming foreign arrivals. The scope of testing has also been scaled up, with over 52 labs operationalized to test samples of suspected cases — compared to just one lab a couple of months ago — and another 57 labs helping in sample collection. A number of state governments have also enforced social distancing by shuttering educational institutions, cinemas, and other public gatherings.
With similar structural challenges and notable intraregional movement of people, the countries of South Asia face a common threat, one that necessitates joint action. Even before Modi publicly proposed a SAARC leaders’ meeting, regional cooperation among South Asian countries was already set in motion. Over the past couple of months, India and some of the other South Asian countries have been conducting evacuation efforts from a number of virus-hit countries. Alongside their own citizens, the Indian authorities have also brought back foreign nationals including from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal — demonstrating the “Neighborhood First” policy of the Modi government. India had even offered — subject to the availability of resources—to evacuate Pakistani students from Wuhan. However, Pakistan did not accept India’s assistance toward this end, in keeping with its long-held aversion to cooperating with India over such issues. Notably, this came against the backdrop of Pakistan refusing to bring back its people itself, despite increasing distress calls from Pakistanis in the virus-hit locations.
Notwithstanding the antagonism of its western neighbor, India has rightly sought to steer the region’s efforts toward combating the viral outbreak. Illustrating this has been India’s provision of medical supplies to Maldives, an island nation that is particularly dependent on external assistance in times of natural disasters or health crises such as the current one. India has also sent a medical team consisting of pulmonologists, anaesthetists, and physicians to assist Maldivian healthcare authorities.
The latest initiative of a meeting among SAARC leaders, proposed by Modi, therefore, is a much desired next step for facilitating regional cooperation.
At the meeting, the Indian prime minister proposed a COVID-19 Emergency Fund, with an initial commitment of $10 million from India. He also mooted a disease surveillance portal, which can help in better contact tracing and surveillance over the disease’s spread. Through this initiative, SAARC countries potentially stand to benefit from India’s experience of tracking and monitoring vulnerable people through its Integrated Disease Surveillance Network, which is run by its state- and district-level surveillance systems.
Another proposal was the creation of a common framework for telemedicine. This idea, mooted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, would be of particular interest to SAARC countries given the paucity of medical resources in dealing with the ongoing challenge. Such a facility can also play a critical role in taking medical services to remote and inaccessible areas, particularly those with hilly terrains. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasized the need for the deliberations to continue at the ministerial level as well as among health experts. There is much scope for such cooperation among SAARC countries, especially in the areas of testing, sharing strategies of information dissemination, and addressing the lacunae in medical infrastructure.
Overall, the latest meeting was a welcome initiative that has the potential to effectively address the need for collective action in the SAARC region toward fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. More broadly, the high-level engagement was also a refreshing break from the dormancy that had come to characterize SAARC over the past few years.
Going forward, South Asia also needs to prepare for the eventuality of the exponential spread of the virus, if the outbreak gets past the current stage and records community spread. The number of hospital beds as well as other medical equipment like ventilators would become insufficient in such a scenario. Making an accurate assessment of such requirements well in advance would help in mitigating the pressure. However, for now, South Asia needs to focus its efforts on containment, which will not only prevent fresh infections but prevent public health systems from being overstretched. The next few weeks will be crucial for this part of the world, home to almost a quarter of the world’s population.
Kamal Madishetty is a Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He is an alumnus of the Jindal School of International Affairs and IIT Guwahati. He tweets @KamalMadishetty.