Saarc remains inactive for long. And Bimstec blooms amid Saarc's failure. We also see initiatives like BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) and IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) which are in well-progress. But it's COVID-19 which brought all eight Saarc Member States together after a long pause.

The last Saarc Summit in 2014 was held in Kathmandu while the 2016 Saarc Summit was scheduled to be held in Islamabad. But after the terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 18 that year, India expressed its inability to participate in the Summit. The Summit was called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to participate in it.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves credit as New Delhi clearly demonstrated its willingness or at least tried to put politics aside while dealing with the pandemic that appears a common enemy for all countries. Modi's decision to convene the videoconference is truly something out-of-the-box thinking.

What we have seen on March 15 is in fact a virtual Saarc Summit taking the advantage of technology. Apart from Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's Special Assistant on Health Dr Zafar Mirza also joined the videoconference to represent their respective nations. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, remained absent which indicates that it will not be so easy to make Saarc functional despite positive approach from all countries except Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Modi proposed creating a COVID-19 emergency fund with India's initial contribute $10 million. Other countries including Bangladesh offered useful suggestions. Imran Khan's representative in the videoconference Dr Zafar Mirza, Pakistan State Minister of Heath, didn't make any such significant offer.

Saarc-wise Strategy

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has proposed that an institution be established to prevent and fight any public health threat in the South Asian region in future.

"We believe it's extremely important to establish an institution to prevent and fight against any public health threat in the South Asian region in future.... Bangladesh will be happy to host such institution if you all kindly agree," she said stressing the need for forging collaboration among the Saarc countries through collective expertise and resources to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheikh Hasina said all the Saarc countries need to cooperate and collaborate closely to fight this Covid-19 pandemic. "We need to forge collaboration through our collective capacity, expertise and resources," she said.

Bangladesh is ready to share its capacity and expertise as well as the best practices with the Saarc countries, including logistic support, if required.

"To continue this dialogue at the technical level, our (Saarc) health ministers, health secretaries and relevant health experts can also have this kind of videoconferences to discuss specific areas of cooperation," the Bangladesh Prime Minister proposed, saying WHO South-East Asia Regional Director may be invited to these videoconferences.

"We need to devise a strong Saarc-wise strategy to fight this public health threat and protect our citizens," she said.

Highlighting steps taken by Bangladesh to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh successfully prevented the entry of the virus through strong surveillance and rigorous checks-up at all international airports, seaports and land ports.

As of now, Bangladesh had only three Covid-19 imported cases. They have already recovered. There are two new imported cases from Europe, she said. "We have no local or community transmission of any Covid-19 case," she said.

The Prime Minister said Bangladesh has formed a national committee to provide guidance to people concerned from all ministries at all levels. It has also undertaken massive awareness-raising campaign everywhere in Bangladesh through all available media, including social media, she said.

"We've also trained health workers at the upazila level. Schoolchildren are also being trained to follow necessary personal hygiene," she added.

Bangladesh has stockpiles for testing kits, infra-red thermometers, isolation gowns and masks, said Sheikh Hasina.

Noting that all countries are now interconnected in today's world, she said the Saarc nations need to work together in close collaboration for addressing challenges like disease and climate change issues.

What India offered to SAARC partners

• Creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Fund, based on voluntary contributions. India pledged US$10 million as a start. The aim is to help any of Saarc nations meet the cost of emergent actions to combat this pandemic.

• Foreign Secretaries to finalise concept and operational rules, said the Indian High Commission in Dhaka.

• Indian Rapid Response Teams, of doctors, specialists and testing equipment, who are already on standby.

• Online training capsules for emergency response staff, for all Saarc countries, using the model India used to raise capacity of emergency staff across India.

• A review videoconference of doctors and medical professionals, in one week to ten days, to consider specific measures and best practices in Saarc states.

• A review videoconference of trade officials to consider the impact of travel restrictions on intra-regional trade within Saarc, recognising the high level of inter-dependence of several of our economies.

• Help prepare a website with informational material in all Saarc languages.

• Sharing software in their own Integrated Health Information Platform for Disease Surveillance, and training to use this MIS system, for all SAARC partners.

• Use of the Saarc Disaster Management Centre to identify and popularise best practices in fighting Covid-19.

• For the future: proposed creating a Research Platform for all Saarc states to share ideas and proposals for diagnostic and therapeutic interventions for diseases and epidemics.

Indian Council of Medical Research will help coordinate this.

Coming Together, Not Growing Apart

The Saarc region is a home to nearly one-fifth of all humanity and it is densely populated. Indian Prime Minister Modi tried to convey the Saarc leaders that they can respond best only by coming together, not growing apart.

"It's clear that we have to work together. We can respond best by coming together not growing apart; collaboration not confusion; preparation not panic," he said.

The Indian Prime Minister said they fully recognise that they are still in an unknown situation.

"We can't predict with certainty how the situation will unfold despite our best efforts. You must also be facing similar concerns. This is why it would be most valuable for all of us to share our perspectives," he said mentioning that they are facing a serious challenge.

Modi laid emphasis on staying vigilant saying they must succeed together as the countries are still in an unknown situation. "Prepare, but don't panic' has been our guiding mantra."

"As developing countries, all of us have significant challenges in terms of access to healthcare facilities. Our people-to-people ties are ancient and our societies are deeply inter-connected," he said adding, "We must all prepare together, we must all act together, and we must all succeed together."

Other Saarc Leaders' Thoughts

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Ali underlined the importance of community awareness and effective mobilisation to control the spread of virus.

He welcomed regional initiatives taken by Indian Prime Minister Modi.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said many lessons were learnt from the sharing of experiences in the videoconference and thanked Modi for offering assistance like testing kits to regional countries.

President of the Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih welcomed Modi's suggestion of setting up a COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani welcomed various new initiatives suggested by Modi and suggests all countries to keep a close focus on the next months on the evolving situation.

Dr Zafar Mirza, Pakistan State Minister of Heath, observed that Pakistan shares the common regional concerns on the virus- "while hoping for the best, we have to prepare for the worst".

Dr. Mirza also said it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from what he described "Indian-occupied" J and K and in view of the health emergency; and it is imperative that all lockdown in "disputed territory must be lifted immediately" opening up communication and movement will facilitate dissemination of information, medical supplies, containment and proceed relief efforts unimpeded.

Bhutanese Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering welcomed setting up of the COVID-19 fund and acknowledged the contribution of health care professionals to combating the virus.

Later Modi said, "We have to fight this battle together, and we have to win it together. Our neighbourhood collaboration should be a model for the world."

We know this is just a beginning and there will be more interactions at various levels to implement the ideas shared during the videoconference. If the Saarc leaders truly act on what they discussed and shared, the region and its people will be benefited by effectively dealing with the pandemic and very challenging time ahead. If they fail to stand united and do not help each other, everybody will equally be affected.

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