South Asia needs a collective pandemic agenda
The study has been authored by Shashika Bandara, Soumyadeep Bhaumik and others from the South Asian region.
In 2020, South Asia was a COVID-19 success story. Despite weak health systems, high population density, poor living conditions, and poverty, COVID-19 cases in South Asia continued to remain low, while European nations and USA struggled with massive outbreaks and thousands dying. But things changed towards the end of first quarter of 2021, with the second wave of COVID-19 in India. India's health system crumbled, millions died and many more suffered. The horror was repeated in other South Asian countries one after another, in an almost identical fashion. But there is little co-operation between South Asian countries. This is quite unlike many other geographic blocks like European Union, which recognise geographic, economic, and cultural interdependence and work towards collective good. South Asian countries need to be pragmatic and work together to develop a ‘Stronger Together’ collective pandemic agenda on critical areas of medical and public health concern.
Without a collective regional agenda, health challenges like the pandemic cannot be adequately managed in South Asia. Establishing cross-national surveillance (epidemiologic, clinical, and genomic) of COVID-19 will provide a more comprehensive picture of the pandemic, enabling identification of issues and trends much earlier. Another key challenge in the COVID-19 crisis was health systems capacity. While infrastructure can be temporarily acquired for, the reality is South Asia has a very low health worker density. Mechanisms for cross-border patient management (relaxed medical visa requirements), mutual recognition of medical licenses (including from telemedicine) and of on-call medical missions can provide for a robust mechanism from a humanitarian standpoint. Developing trans-border shared resiliency and preparedness plan by governments in the region is required. Another key issue seen in the pandemic was shortage of vaccines and medicines, which high-income countries have cornered for their own use. Sharing of technologies to develop for the common cause of humanity is also being prevented at the global level by high-income nations who seek to profit. Function as a ‘bloc’ with a united voice enables better negotiation. Development of shared manufacturing capacity to safeguard against politically extractive and unreliable high-income country aid is crucial – a lot can be achieved by playing on strengths of each other. Bringing down legal and other barriers for cooperation between scientific, professional organisations, associations, and academia in South Asia will not only enable knowledge-exchange but also foster action to counter irrationality and anti-science. A collective ‘Stronger Together’ pandemic agenda in South Asia, will also provide a useful template to work on the impending climate crisis and other health security changes that the region.
(The study has been authored by Shashika Bandara, Soumyadeep Bhaumik and others from the South Asian region.)