On 15th March, under the initiative led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, distinguished dignitaries of SAARC nations came together through a video conference and joined their hands to chalk out a common strategy to fight against the deadly COVID-19 in the region. They raised their concerns about the disease and shared possible preventive measures among themselves. This initiative received a huge appreciation both from member states and other parts of the world. Notably, SAARC leaders did not meet on a regional platform since after attending the 18th SAARC Summit. In 2016, the 19th SAARC Summit was scheduled to be held in Islamabad was later got canceled.
In the video conference, the Indian Prime Minister expressed his faith in regional cooperation. He proposed the establishment of an emergency COVID-19 Fund that can be utilized by any member states for meeting up their cost of immediate actions. India has made an initial offer of USD 10 million for this fund. Simultaneously, all SAARC members have made a significant contribution to this fund including Afghanistan (USD 1 million), Bangladesh (USD 1.5 million), Bhutan (USD 100,000), Maldives (USD 200,000), Nepal (USD 831,393.45), and Sri Lanka (USD 5 million). Pakistan is the only SAARC member that has yet not made any contribution to the fund (data is collected on 25th March 2020 from the website of SAARC Disaster Management Centre.
During the video conference, Pakistan Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza made a remark on Kashmir that was howsoever unrelated to the mandate of the video conference. Article II of the SAARC Charter specifically mentions that “Cooperation within the framework of the Association shall be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit.” Pakistan is an essential part of the SAARC region. It is a home for around 12% of the South Asian population. As of 25th March, it has the highest number of people affected by a coronavirus, that is, 887 in the region. This makes it more important for Pakistan to actively engage with the joint measures for the welfare and prosperity of the region.
There is a difference between politics and pandemic. Both of them should not be mixed at this juncture. Our development has been halted. Our movement has been restricted. Recently, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has also called for an immediate global ceasefire. We are not living a similar life, as we were a few months ago. This is a crucial time when countries should keep aside their differences and come together facilitating each other in the common fight against such global concern.
SAARC is aptly being utilized in these challenging times when the COVID-19 virus has already infected 1647 people and causing the death of 20 people from the region. The initiative aimed to discuss measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the region. SAARC is founded upon historical and cultural ties among its member states and advocates for a co-operation for the development of the region. Preambular paragraph of SAARC Charter specifically recognizes the commonalities within the region and provides for cooperation to:
“Aware of the common problems, interests, and aspirations of the peoples of South Asia and the need for joint action and enhanced cooperation within their respective political and economic systems and cultural traditions;”
It further provides, “Convinced that regional cooperation among the countries of South Asia is mutually beneficial, desirable and necessary for promoting the welfare and improving the quality of life of the peoples of the region; Recognising that increased cooperation, contacts and exchanges among the countries of the region will contribute to the promotion of friendship and understanding among their peoples;”
Similarly, Article I of the SAARC Charter provides the objectives of this Association that includes: “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems; to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields”. Indeed, SAARC can bring all members together and collectively overcome this pandemic. Also, the effective co-operation among its members can play a significant role in the success of this initiative.
On 26th March, SAARC Health professionals shall meet again to share their experiences and build up joint actions for the prevention and cure of the disease. It will be pertinent to observe the role of SAARC members in their collective fight against COVID-19. What advancements will be brought to its status after the eradication of this disease? How SAARC members will proceed jointly before the international community? These are a few questions that can be answered over time. Meanwhile, this initiative has provided a good opportunity for the region to strengthen its loose ties while fighting against COVID-19. The SAARC initiative on COVID-19 is making good progress. Member parties are significantly willing to cooperate. If everything goes well, SAARC could re-emerge as a significant voice in the global east.