As an unprecedented epidemic sweeps the globe, the world stands further divided with governments forced to look inwards and even close their borders. Both the United States (US) and the EU (European Union) have been the most affected from the COVID-19 epidemic, with very early signs of continental disconnect emerging when President Trump banned travel from the EU in the first two weeks ofMarch 2020. Trump’s apparent delayed response to the epidemic leading the US to climb to the unwanted numero uno position in the most affected countries list has left the American society divided. This is likely to impact the upcoming Presidential elections in the US. Within the EU, China’s “Mask Diplomacy” has divided the countries, where some countries like the Netherlands and Spain are sceptical of China’s help, while countries like Sweden and Czech Republic have muted their criticism of China as they see itas the only country that can supply them with medical assistance in these grave times. What the world is going through is sure to change states’ behaviour, if not between themselves, in how they come around to deal with China.
Although it could be tad early to predict a fundamental reassessment of international relations altogether globally in the post-COVID-19 world order, one can already see the initial hues of change. One of the possible ways in which the change can be imminent is the way in which countries engage in multilateralism, particularly regionalism. As most major countries are busy firefighting within their borders, regional cooperation has taken a back seat. SAARC- that many thought was moribund and beyond any scope of revival, meanwhile, has provided some glimmer of hope with India’s successful attempt at bringing the eight countries together through Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s innovative idea to hold a video conference between the SAARC leaders. Although health infrastructure and capacity are not an asset of most SAARC nations, it is a commendable idea from India to use this unrivalled global crisis as an opportunity to revive regional cooperation through a mechanism whose obituary has been written multiple times over.
On March 15, India led from the front in hosting the first SAARC meeting in years, following PMModi’s proposal to hold a virtual meet through video to devise a regional strategy in fighting the rapidly spreading coronavirus. He proposed that the “leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus”. The virtual meeting included leaders of seven countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the special health adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. They discussed the rising cases of coronavirus in the subcontinent, measures taken to halt the spread of the raging virus, and possible treatment methods. India laid out its ongoing efforts and action plan to limit the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The meet was important from quite a few perspectives. First, it is a crisis turned opportunity by bringing together countries of the region for the first high-level SAARC meet since 2014 by providing directional leadership with health diplomacy as it core objective- an agenda which none can refuse. Moreover, this was the organisation’s first meeting in four years after India had declined to meet in Islamabad in 2016 citing cross-border terrorism (Uri Attack) as the basis. Then, other countries of SAARC like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan had also pulled out leaving SAARC directionless. Second, India’s decision to hold the conference despite its open reservations against talking to Pakistan reflects a befitting attitude of a leader-nation that has risen above bilateral animosity to engage all nations tothink of the larger regional good. It shows its mature understanding that global challenges require coordinated response. This was evident when India chose to ignore Pakistan’s use of the SAARC forum to rake up the Kashmir issue, even though the meet had a different and a much more pressing agenda. Major countries of the world including the US and Russia have lauded India’s efforts towards preparing South Asia for a collective response. Although, India’s decision came a day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) floated the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund with the help of corporate bodies, foundations and the UN Foundation and a day prior to asimilar videoconference between G7 leaders, bringing the SAARC leaders on a common platform by Indiahas been held as a masterstroke.
Among tangible deliverables, the meeting saw India’s proposal of a COVID-19 emergency fund for SAARC countries to fight the pandemic, extending $10 million as India's contribution for the fund. Contributions to the emergency fund have also been committed by Sri Lanka ($5 million), Bangladesh ($1.5 million), Nepal ($1 million), Afghanistan ($1 million), Maldives ($200,000) and Bhutan ($100,000) taking the total amount in the COVID-19 Emergency Fund to $18.3 million. Pakistan’s contribution is still awaited. Since the leaders’ videoconference, the senior health professionals of SAARC countries also met on another video conference on March 26 to exchange experiences of combating the spread of COVID-19 thus far and share best practices. SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU), Gandhinagar has set up a website (http://www.covid19-sdmc.org/) on COVID-19 for shared use of SAARC countries. A ‘special cell’ in the Ministry of External Affairs of India is coordinating and monitoring coordination of regional efforts with SAARC countries.
Among other initiatives, even before the SAARC videoconference, India had dispatched a 14-member medical team from its defence forces, including doctors and paramedics, to the Maldives to assist in fighting the pandemic. This initiative is important as perhaps this is the first-ever Indian medical team to go to another country. India has also proposed to send a Rapid Response Team (RRT) of medical professionals to Nepal to assist the latter in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. Besides, in an exceptional displayof leadership, India evacuated more than 50 citizens from other countries including from Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, US, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru amid its own evacuations in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Perhaps for the first time, the baneful aphorism used in the context of SAARC, that South Asia is the “most disconnected region in the world” is seen as a respite in the light of the searing contagion that has brought the world to a screeching halt. But that very same crisis presents the region with an opportunity like never before. Even when a global crisis looms large, India has depicted that the SAARC spirit should be sustained and the organisational platform can be used to foster regional cooperation.
With relatively lower number of cases regionally than other regions of the world till now, South Asia should not be lackadaisical in its response to tackle this pandemic. Given the region’s vast and dense population, millions lack the luxury of ‘social distancing’ and a rapid community transmission of the epidemic could see an uncontrollable health crisis. As such, the resurrection of SAARC is a pre-emptive response to deal with a possible larger regional outbreak of the pandemic, but more importantly, to have a collective regional response to future health crises in the region.
*Dr. Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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