Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 23, 2020
Will COVID19 crisis rejuvenate the coalition of SAARC nations

COVID19, the latest embodiment of nature’s fury is a point in a continuum that has predecessors like The Great plague of Marseille (1720), the deadly cholera outbreak (1817-20) and the Spanish flu at the closing year of the first world war in 1918. While each of the catastrophes caused an umpteenth loss of lives, perhaps never before were we better prepared to ensure self-preservation through resolute multilateral cooperation.

It’s true that the earlier contagions have found themselves wreaking havoc in a world divided against itself. Guided by colonial pride and embarking on trade-centric foreign policies, it was a norm to iron- curtain thy neighbour to survive in a world where supranationalism was yet to be considered with seriousness and respect. But the lessons of the two great wars, followed by over four decades of hot-peace have coagulated the nations into local groupings. Today, as the world faces the most virulent strain of the coronavirus family, the time is ripe for SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), as the champion of the South Asian economic and geopolitical interests, to test the cohesion of the alliance.

Comprising 21% of the world population, SAARC represents the South Asian aspirations for peaceful coexistence and collective self-reliance. The group has made commendable achievements in areas ranging from poverty alleviation, energy cooperation, food security to trade promotion. But an aura of skepticism has enveloped it since its inception. As a matter of fact a host of factors including the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, backed by the Pakistani Deep State, mismanagement of the Rohingya crisis, the Teesta water-sharing issue and others have left the South Asia watchers wondering about the socio-political homogeneity of the SAARC in lines of its South-East Asian counterpart – ASEAN. Would it be able to muster group-action against an existential crisis?

For long India has been criticised for adopting a big-brotherly posture in South Asia. But India’s assumption of the moral whip has secured numerous gains for a region underlaid by economic-strife and shocking religious animosities. So it was a defining moment when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal through Twitter, to chalk and orchestrate a coordinated response against COVID-19 was met with high enthusiasm by the SAARC nation-heads. It not only set in motion the SAARC response mechanism to the crisis but was also a diplomatic ice-breaker, bringing Pakistan to the discussion table, albeit through its State Minister of Health, Zafar Mirza.

At India’s initiative, the SAARC COVID Summit culminated into a solution for a fundamental problem in the protracted fight against the COVID-19: funding. Following our footsteps of a $10 million contribution, other SAARC member states committed to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Besides its tactical significance, the gesture has profound strategic implications. It manifests the willingness of SAARC to take on the humanitarian crisis in the South Asian neighbourhood by rising above issues within its individual geographical boundaries. It is heartening to witness Afghanistan committing $1 million even when its domestic peace process is disrupted by a renewed wave of violence at the heels of America’s freshly signed peace agreement with the Taliban.

Also, the establishment of the fund and its operation is a reminder that even in the current moment of high geopolitical entropy, SAARC stands as a defender of South-Asian interests, for both members and non-members. A case in point is India assuring COVID-19 emergency funding support to Seychelles.

The summit is significant not only for dovetailing financial resources but also for the convergence of ideas forming pillars for the COVID-19 regional action plan. While sharing their concerns in unison for the proliferation of the coronavirus in the South Asian neighbourhood, numerous ideas were put forward by the SAARC political elites. It includes a proposal by Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa for setting up a SAARC group of ministers (GOM) to deal with the issues effectively. Also, the Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina called for continued dialogues between bureaucrats and experts on follow up actions regarding COVID-19 and to establish a video conferencing framework for the SAARC health ministers.

These innovative ideas form the bedrock for an India spearheaded electronic platform targeted to share and exchange information, knowledge, expertise and best-practices by the SAARC members for jointly fighting the pandemic. Further, the SAARC Disaster Management Center has launched a website for real-time situational updates on developments around the crisis. But even amidst this unprecedented environment of solidarity, the recalcitrant posture of the proverbial prodigal son, Pakistan cannot be overlooked. Its head of the state not only gave the SAARC COVID Summit a miss but also tried to milk the platform for drumming up the Kashmir issue. Moreover, the sustained activity of Hizbul Mujahideen in J&K and renewed Taliban offensive in Afghanistan proves that the South Asian terror infrastructure remains intact. It poses a plausible threat to the cooperative ambiance that is imperative to tide over the crisis.

Also, the COVID-19 pandemic, by disrupting economics, has exposed South-Asia to chequebook diplomacy of China. In this situation, success for SAARC will pivot not only on keeping the state-funded non-state actors on a tight leash but also on economic self-dependence and localisation of solution-development through enduring private-public partnerships. With the rollback of the erstwhile Obama Administration’s Asia Pivot Strategy by the receding United States, new world order is clearly over the horizon. SAARC not only needs to rejuvenate but also must rearm itself with new collective-policy tools to deal with the grim realities of a multi-polar world. In future, the present COVID-19 episode is likely to be repeated and will possibly be a pawn in the geopolitical chessboard of the great powers.

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Akanksha Sharma

Akanksha Sharma

Akanksha Sharma is an International Development and Public Policy Specialist. She has been recognised as the 'Most Impactful CSR Leaders Globally' 'Asias Top Sustainability Leaders' ...

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