By Amit Agnihotri
New Delhi: As China blames US for the Coronavirus in Wuhan, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi today gave a sense of purpose to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as he urged member-nations to fight the deadly COVID-19 in a spirit of collaboration.
Modi, in his interaction through video conferencing with the SAARC members, stressed the need to prepare for the menace and not panic over it. The SAARC members welcomed the initiative of the Indian PM who said such regional collaboration could serve as a model for the world.
All the SAARC members agreed to work jointly against the virus, barring Pakistan’s health minister Dr Zafar Mirza, who played spoilsport by unnecessarily raising the Kashmir issue, saying lock down in the Indian Union Territory be lifted in view of the health emergency. India rubbished his remarks as “churlish” and said the mention demeaned a humanitarian effort.
The United States and China have been involved in a recent spat over the COVID-19. Miffed over a Chinese official tweeting that the US military might have brought the pandemic to Wuhan, where the virus was first detected last year, the US had summoned the Chinese ambassador two days ago. David Stilwell, the US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, apprised Ambassador Cui Tiankai of the resentment in his country after Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted the conspiracy theory.
COVID-19 has been classified by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic. The South Asian region has so far listed less than 150 cases, the Indian PM said, while highlighting the need to “remain vigilant”.
To begin with, Modi proposed an emergency fund to fight the menace and offered $10 million as India’s initial contribution towards it. The respective foreign secretaries would work out the modalities of the fund, which would be based on voluntary contributions from member-nations.
The money would be available to any SAARC member-country to meet the cost of immediate actions their government takes to deal with COVID-19.
India was assembling a quick response team of doctors and specialists along with testing kits, the PM said, adding that the same would be available to the SAARC members.
Further, India would arrange online training modules at short notice and the same may be used by the emergency response teams in the member-countries.
The PM also said that India had set up an integrated online disease surveillance system to better trace the possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. The SAARC members could avail of this software and training on how to use it, the PM said.
The PM urged the member nations to use existing facilities like the SAARC disaster management centre so that the regional grouping was able to pool the best practices and make the same available to all.
In the coming days, a common research platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within the South-Asian region would be set, the PM said, adding that the Indian Council of Medical Research could extend a helping hand towards the goal.
Expressing concern on the long-term economic impact of COVID-19, the PM said regional experts could brainstorm on how to insulate internal trade and the local value chains from the menace.
The PM also urged the SAARC members to evolve common pandemic protocols, which may be applied on the borders and within borders in similar situations. This, he said, would help the member-nations curb the spread of such infections across the region and allow the governments to keep internal movements free.
When PM Modi shared with the SAARC members how India had evacuated around 1,400 people from various countries, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina thanked him for bringing 23 students of her country back from Wuhan in China during the quarantine period.
Other South Asian heads of State, who agreed to evolve joint strategies against COVID-19, included Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Bhutan Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, Nepal Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, who joined the video conference on a day he had a surgery, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.