India on Sunday offered to create an emergency fund to combat coronavirus (Covid-19) with an initial contribution of 10 million dollars which could be drawn upon by any of the eight SAARC members to meet urgent requirements.
Foreign Secretaries of the SAARC nations could quickly coordinate among themselves on the modalities of the fund, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested during an unprecedented video conferencing among SAARC heads of government barring Pakistan which fielded Minister of State for Health Zafar Mirza.
Mr. Modi also offered to put at the disposal of SAARC members a rapid response team of doctors and specialists assembled by India along with testing kits and other equipment. "They will be on standby, to be placed at your disposal," he said.
India can also quickly arrange online training capsules for emergency response teams based on the model used here to raise the capacity of emergency staff. Modi also offered to share the software of India’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to trace virus carriers and people they have contacted besides activating the SAARC Disaster Management Centre.
Pakistan struck a jarring note by raising the issue of Kashmir during the video conferencing among SAARC countries on collectively combating the epidemic. Mr. Zafar Mirza raised the issue of lock-down in Kashmir by stating that the 'the dissemination of information is essential and lock-down must be lifted in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.'
Mr. Mirza also proposed a meeting of SAARC Health Ministers for sharpening the coordinated response in the region. 'We are alert to the dangers and have put in place sufficient protocols for the safety and health of our people. The WHO has commended our efforts as being amongst the best in the world,' he said.
Meanwhile, Modi proposed joint deliberations on the economic consequences which seemed to preoccupy other SAARC leaders as much as the need to keep Covid-19 at bay.
The Presidents of Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan besides the PM of Bhutan pointed out their economies had started suffering.
Modi encapsulated the Indian response as 'collaboration not confusion' and 'preparation not panic' while warning that despite the low fatality rate in South Asia, the situation remained uncertain. "We cannot predict with certainty how the situation will unfold despite our best efforts. You must be facing similar concerns. This is why it is valuable for us to share our perspectives," Modi said.
Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan wanted the health ministers of SAARC to meet and coordinate actions like they had done previously during the SARS crises in 2003 with Islamabad offering to host the first conference in this regard.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke after Modi, put forward a five-point proposal, while Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina appreciated the collective effort by SAARC after a long time. Nepal's Prime Ministser K P Oli, also warned that the SAARC region still faced the risk of outbreak anytime despite efforts by all countries.
Zafar Mirza backed the proposal by Maldives and Bangladesh for the SAARC Secretariat to establish a working group of national authorities on health to ensure real-time exchange of data.
Pointing out that SAARC comprises one-fifth of the humanity, Modi said its dense population, significant challenges in terms of access to health care facilities and the deep interconnection of societies made it imperative that the SAARC region must all prepare and act together.
Briefly sharing India’s experience of combating the spread of virus so far, he said the guiding mantra has been 'prepare but do not panic'. India had been careful not to underestimate the problem. At the same time, it has avoided knee-jerk reaction by taking proactive steps. “We started screening entry into India from mid January itself while also gradually increasing restrictions on travel. The step-by-step approach has helped avoid panic,” he pointed out.