As a first of its kind, the SAARC countries came together to fight the challenge posed by COVID-19. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the initiative “Together we can fight #COVID19” in bringing together SAARC member states to collectively fight the menace of emerging health challenge posed by COVID-19.
WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Over 160,000 persons have been infected worldwide with 6000 plus deaths. While SAARC area has around 150 cases as on date, with two fatalities, thereare reason for concern as the area account for nearly 1/5th of humanity. SAARC region comprised of densely populated countries with vast variations of means and significant healthcare challenges. PM Modi underlined that the pandemic has strained capacity of the world to assist others, and, therefore, regional cooperation is imperative.It is in this context India is reaching out to its neighbours toprioritize humanitarian needs; reaffirm the imperative of collective action against apandemic that threatens all of us; and underscore the imperative of cooperative efforts by all countries in the region, to tackle such a complex transnational challenge.
The event showcased presence of all eight SAARC member States, the new (Sri Lankan) SAARC Secretary General and the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (based in India). It also underscored priority attached to cooperation against this pandemic by all States. Acknowledging presence of PM Sheikh Hasina and others,PM Modi particularly made reference of PM of Nepal, who recently underwent a major surgery.
All the Leaders listed actions takenin their countries, and shared thoughts on the way forward.Several had warm words for this initiative, and for assistancedelivered by India bilaterally.PM Modi elaborated on the action taken by India that included India amongst earliest responding nations. India set up Joint MonitoringMechanism on 8 Jan 2020, a day after China identified a new typeof Coronavirus (COVID-19) on January 7. Modi detailed about India’s approach that included quickly heightened surveillance, increasedmonitoring measures in a graduated and transparent manner, whileensuring high degree of public awareness.First health advisory was issued by India on January 17, to initiatepreparedness for COVID-19 and start surveillance of Severe AcuteResipratory Illnesses. This was 13 days before WHO declared it aPublic Health Emergency of International Concern.Graded response was set up from January 17, including thermalscreening at key gateway airports. This was graduated to 21 airportsas the disease spread to SE Asia. After it spread to Europe, it was increased to 30 airports with universal screening, as well as landborder crossing points that are still open.Simultaneously increased restrictions were placed on travel, but in a step-bystepmanner, so as not to create panic.Increased public awareness campaigns are being carried on TV, print and socialmedia, and specially designed ‘infotainment’ material.In parallel, India ramped up systemic capacity by expanding training formedical staff in all States and Union Territories.
Increased diagnostic capabilities are build up in India that increased from only one majormolecular diagnostic facility for pan-India testing, to over 60 labscurrently, within less than two months. At the same time, developed protocols for each stage of managing this pandemic,including screening at entry points; contact tracing of suspectedcases; quarantine and management of isolation facilities; and fordischarge of cleared cases.
Sensibly responding to the call of diaposa abroad, India evacuated over1450 Indians from major outbreak areas, as well as citizens fromseveral of their neighbours that included 27 Bangladesh nationals. This included extremely challengingcircumstances, in places under complete lockdown. India claimed to have now built up a protocol for this too, including carrying outtesting by mobile teams deployed abroad. This is being currently done in Italy and Iran.
India offered SAARC partners creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Fund, based on voluntarycontributions. India pledged US$10 million as a start. This is aimed tohelp any of member nations to meet the cost of emergent actions tocombat this pandemic. Foreign Secretaries were requested to finalize conceptand operational rules. Further collaboration discussed included Indian Rapid Response Teams, of doctors, specialists andtesting equipment, who are already on standby.Online training capsules for emergency response staff, for allSAARC countries, using the model India used to raisecapacity of emergency staff across India was put forth. Further proposals included a review video conference of doctors and medicalprofessionals, in one week to ten days, to consider specificmeasures and best practices in SAARC States; a review video conference of trade officials to consider theimpact of travel restrictions on intra-regional trade withinSAARC, recognizing the high level of inter-dependence ofseveral of our economies; help prepare a website with informational material in allSAARC languages; sharing software in our own Integrated Health InformationPlatform for Disease Surveillance, and training to use this MISsystem, for all SAARC partners; use of the SAARC Disaster Management Centre, to identifyand popularize best practices in fighting Covid-19.
For the future to tackle the emerging crisis, it was proposed to create a Research Platform for allSAARC States to share ideas and proposals for diagnosticand therapeutic interventions for diseases and epidemics.Indian Council of Medical Research will help coordinate this. On bilateralbasis, India has also offered and deliveredassistance to some of their SAARC neighbours at their request within less than 24 hours, that included Maldives.
The Video conferencing provided an insight into key initiative of PM Modi to encourage the region to rise beyondbilateral differences to combat a pandemic and its willingness to use any and all mechanisms to promotemutually beneficial cooperation. It also underlined the fundamental connectedness of South Asian region emphaising the need for all to work together. Here, India is not seen imposing leadership, but offering partnership tothe region as a means of securing collective good. The conference provided an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of transparency, information sharing,and partnership to avoid extremes of reaction—either panic orinaction. All participants appeared willing to reflect and protect the interests of their partners in South Asia in multilateral fora on suchtransboundary issues, as reflected in today's discussions.
Finally, PM Modi reaffirmed India’s commitment within limits imposed by needs and the uncertainty of thefuture direction of this crisis, always ready to help their neighbours. This is in recognition of the fact that pandemic of such magnitude and challenge is difficult to combat if India do not help arrest it in their neighbourhood.
PM Sheikh Hasina commended the effort and initiative of India and PM Modi in this regard, and assured to pool in all that is possible, to jointly address the evolving health challenge. PM called upon all the member states to continue this dialogue for the good of all.
Editor: Sukriti Kr Mondal
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