The ongoing COVID-19 situation has made an economic, social and political impact across the borders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. India for the first time, after 2016, seems to be reviving its role in SAARC. It is likely that countries would, get along by subduing their political differences and cooperate to collectively fight against the pandemic. This article looks into three main questions; How SAARC is dealing with COVID-19? What role India has been playing in SAARC? Will India’s initiatives be a stepping stone in the revival of SAARC?
Since the pandemic started to unveil in South Asia, countries have turned to full lockdown, arrests of violators, sealing of borders, and disciplined social distancing, resulting in an extensive internal migration. As of 25 April, 3:00 hours, SAARC countries have reported 42,566 COVID-19 cases with the highest number of cases in India (WORLDOMETER, 2020).
Soon after the WHO chief, on 11 March described the spread as ‘Pandemic’ and expressed concerns over the ‘alarming level of inaction’, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 15 March took the first step, by inviting its immediate neighbours of South Asia for a first virtual meet. This is in line with India’s “Neighborhood First Policy” which was also evident, by the presence of state heads, during Modi’s both swearing-in ceremonies. SAARC is a regional grouping of eight South Asian countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The meeting was joined by the Secretary-General of SAARC, the President of Afghanistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and the Minister of State for Health from Pakistan. (Video Conference of Leaders of SAARC Countries, 2020)
The virtual meeting emphasized on assessing the current situation and aimed at identifying areas of cooperation to control the spread of the virus and limit its economic impact. Modi said, “We can respond best by coming together, not growing apart, collaboration, not confusion, preparation not panic.” The SAARC leaders appreciated India’s initiatives (SAARC leaders back Modi’s COVID-19 proposals, Pakistan plays Kashmir politics, 2020). Unfortunately, in the meet, Pakistan raised the issue of Kashmir but India refrained from getting involved in controversial issues.
Narendra Modi initiated to set up the SAARC joint emergency relief fund and donated $10 million. Presently, a total of around $21 million has been kept aside to help the SAARC countries to deal with COVID-19, however, Pakistan emphasized that the fund should be dealt with in the bloc’s framework. (India swipe at Pak for insisting on bringing COVID-19 initiative under SAARC framework, 2020). A dedicated website was created by SAARC Disaster Management Center, Gandhinagar, to facilitate the interactions of SAARC health and trade officials to fight the pandemic at the regional level. On 26 March, India hosted another conference with senior health officials of all SAARC countries and agreed to share online training tools for emergency responders and to set up a surveillance platform to trace and handle virus outbreaks. (India to set up an electronic platform for SAARC to fight COVID-19, 2020). Later on 8 April Pakistan boycotted a meet hosted by India, which brought together trade officials from SAARC countries.
On 23 April, Pakistan hosted a video conference with SAARC health ministers. India took active participation, reaffirming India’s interest and commitment towards the regional organization. In the meet, India highlighted a new app ‘Aarogya Setu’ which aims to maximize community outreach within the region. India also developed an electronic platform, COINEX (SAARC COVID19 Information Exchange Platform) for the exchange of specialized information and tools on COVID 19, for use among the SAARC countries. (India’s participation in the video conference of SAARC Health Ministers on COVID-19 hosted by Pakistan, 2020)
After the 2016 Uri attack conducted by the Pakistan-based terrorist organization, India had boycotted the subsequent SAARC meets. India shifted its focus to East and Pakistan to its north and so on. Countries started looking beyond SAARC for building relations with organizations elsewhere. The India-Pakistan rivalry had always plagued the working of SAARC and made it inefficient since its inception. But as the pandemic grew, the SAARC countries have tried to sideline differences to strengthen their partnership.
The first case among the SAARC countries was identified in Nepal on 24 January. With the number of cases growing rapidly in SAARC countries and the suspension of economic activities for weeks, the society has been hit hard. The majority of the population in these countries is poor. They also have a large number of daily wage labourers employed in the unorganized sector who are among the worst affected.
In Afghanistan, the first case was reported on 24 February. Cases in the country have doubled with the large number of migrants returning from Iran through Heart province. As the country is already affected by heightening domestic politics, the increasing cases with fewer medical facilities have worsened the condition. In Bangladesh, due to the lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), several doctors have been infected with COVID-19. Additionally, 90% of its workers are employed in the informal sector and access to health insurance is a luxury. Several healthcare workers were also infected in Pakistan and doctors in some provinces of Pakistan have been protesting due to lack of PPE. Countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka, whose economies are dependent on tourism, have also been hit hard. SAARC is an ideal platform for them to come together and share their capabilities to fight coronavirus.
India has been extending its assistance to SAARC countries. On a bilateral level, India sends army teams and medical health workers to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to provide aid and assistance. Additionally, China has been trying hard to spread the dragon across the globe during COVID-19, by sending medical supplies and other aids. Incidentally, the outbreak of the virus may give India time to rejuvenate its ties with SAARC and attempt to get back its ‘big brother’ stature.
India’s initiatives may be a stepping stone in the revival of SAARC. Over the years SAARC had lost its significance and India got involved with other regional organizations like BIMSTEC. But with Covid-19 India has sought to become a helping hand to its neighbours and has put in efforts to rebuild SAARC.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s less friendly responses have not deterred India from continuing its engagement. India’s initiatives in the meeting hosted by Pakistan suggest that the Indian side has cast aside the differences with Pakistan and is willing to strengthen multilateral cooperation. However, only time will prove if the ad-hoc cooperation in SAARC will move towards the formation of an efficient regional organization. If countries succeed in cooperating, then they could set an example before the world, of countries coming together during a time of crisis for the greater good of humanity despite deep political differences.