COVID-19: SAARC nations battle against a global pandemic

  • Indian PM leads the SAARC effort to combat COVID-19 pandemic
  • Took initiative on March 16 with a video-conference with SAARC chiefs
  • With contribution from members SAARC’s Emergency Fund now has $18.43 million.

Prachi Vyas

New Delhi: With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating in South Asia, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has intensified efforts to check the spread of the coronavirus across the densely-populated region which is home to approximately 1.9 billion people.

Unlike Europe or America, South Asia appears to have been less impacted by the virus in terms of numbers, but the rate of new cases in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are accelerating.

COVID-19 in SAARC: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the March 2, 2020, video conference with leaders of the SAARC nations.

The SAARC health officials worry that these countries could  still be in danger due to poor health facilities and infrastructure. The virus has already infected more than 18.51 lakh people worldwide and killed more than 1.14 lakh globally.

The SAARC health officials have identified community engagement and participation as “an important element” in any anti-COVID-19 strategy to augment the large-scale emergency measures undertaken by the governments in South Asia.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had rolled out a coordinated effort to contain the pandemic during his March 16 video-conference with Heads of the Government of SAARC nations. One of the focal point that emerged was the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund to which India made an initial contribution of $10 million.

Modi had lauded Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and other SAARC nations for their contribution to this fund, which has now grown to have $18.43 million with contributions from other nations. It could be used to meet emergency expenses by any member nation to contain the pandemic.

Recently, even Pakistan pledged a contribution of $3 million, insisting that the fund must be managed by the SAARC Secretariat (Kathmandu, Nepal), presumably to make sure that the leadership role does not go to India.

The total number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan has sharply increased to 5,000 with more than 280 fresh cases while the death toll has reached 78 people. The official data showed that so far 54,706 tests have been conducted.

Sri Lanka is showing the pattern of Italy and the USA. With the total number of cases increasing to 143 the Sri Lankan government is keen to take some strict steps. The affected areas have been placed under curfew with deliveries of essentials to households  being ensured to prevent public movements.

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, in an address to his nation, said the public and private offices, except those providing essential services, will remain shut until April 3, as a precautionary measures against coronavirus.

Meanwhile, India’s economy, the region’s biggest, is expected to grow only a rate between 1.5 and 2.8 percent in 2020-21. “The green shoots of a rebound that were observable at the end of 2019 have been overtaken by the negative impacts of the global crisis”, a World Bank report said.

Other than India, the World Bank forecast sharp economic downfall of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Three other countries, that is Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives are expected also to fall in recession, the World Bank said in the reports based on country-level data available as of April 7.

Measures taken to counter the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted supply chains across South Asia. To minimize short-term economic pain, the Bank called for countries in the region to announce more fiscal and monetary steps to support unemployed migrant workers, as well as debt relief for businesses and individuals.

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