PM Modi moots SAARC strategy to combat coronavirus
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday suggested the Saarc grouping should frame a strategy to counter Coronavirus, a rare outreach involving Pakistan that drew a positive response from the six other members of the bloc.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has been moribund since a summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan in 2016 was called off after a terror attack on an army camp at Uri in Kashmir. Since then, India has expended more diplomatic capital in shoring up alternative groupings such as Bimstec.
Modi caused a flutter in diplomatic circles by suggesting that Saarc could work jointly to counter COVID-19, and even calling for a discussion through video conferencing by the leadership of the eight member states.
“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus. We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet,” he tweeted.
In another tweet, he said governments and people around the world are trying their best to combat COVID-19. “South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population, should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy,” he added.
Pakistan’s health minister Zafar Mirza told a briefing in Islamabad that Modi’s proposal wasn’t discussed at the National Security Committee meeting chaired today by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by the military leadership.
Diplomatic circles noted the formulation of Modi’s tweets, including a reference to Saarc after a long gap. A person familiar with developments said the message from India was that regional countries could set aside differences and set an example for others by working on a global challenge.
It wasn’t clear whether Pakistan’s National Security Council discussed Modi’s proposal during a meeting on Friday chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by the military leadership.
The proposal was welcomed by the leaders of other Saarc states. It is understood the Indian side could go ahead with the move because of the support from a majority of members.
Bhutan was the first Saarc state to endorse the move, with Prime Minister Lotay Tshering tweeting: “This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome. Looking forward to the video conference.”
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi tweeted his government “strongly welcomes” the proposal and the readiness of other Saarc members to “work together [in] devising a unified strategy to fight the Coronavirus in the region”.
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih thanked Modi “for taking the initiative on this important endeavour”, and tweeted COVID-19 requires “collective effort to defeat it”. He added, “Maldives welcomes this proposal and would fully support such a regional effort.”
Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli welcomed Modi’s idea and tweeted: “My government is ready to work closely with SAARC Member States to protect our citizens from this deadly disease.”
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked Modi and tweeted his country “is ready to join the discussion & share our learnings & best practices and to learn from other #SAARC members. Let’s unite in solidarity during these trying times and keep our citizens safe.”
Bangladesh minister of state for foreign affairs Mohammad Shahriar Alam tweeted that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had welcomed the proposal and looked forward to a constructive dialogue with Modi, Solih, Oli, Tshering and Rajapaksa and other heads of government “who already consented to discuss way forward at this testing time for the region and the world”.
Afghanistan has so far reported seven positive cases and 60 suspected cases. Officials in the country with limited health facilities are bracing for a possible increase in infections as Afghanistan shares a 920-km border with Iran, the fourth most affected country.
India has so far recorded one death and 81 infections, including 17 foreigners. Pakistan has reported 21 cases.
The figures for other Saarc states continue to be low – one case each in Bhutan and Nepal, two in Sri Lanka, three in Bangladesh, and eight in the Maldives.
On Friday, officials of the external affairs, home and health ministries briefed representatives of more than 130 countries and international organisations on India’s steps to counter COVID-19. People familiar with developments said the officials, including the external affairs ministry’s pointperson for COVID-19, additional secretary Dammu Ravi, offered clarifications on government advisories.
“The diplomats mostly raised questions about health facilities and current travel regulations applicable to nationals of their country already in India or wishing to travel to India,” said a person who declined to be named.