SAARC leaders are set to hold a summit on video-conference on coronavirus on Sunday, 5 pm, after Pakistan late Friday night accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's proposal to hold such a meeting.
SAARC leaders are set to hold a summit on video-conference on coronavirus on Sunday, 5 pm, after Pakistan late Friday night accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to hold such a meeting.
Islamabad, however, specified that the engagement would be at the level of the Special Assistant to Pakistan PM on Health. In a tweet, Pakistan Foreign Office Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui said, “We have communicated that SAPM (Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister) on Health (Zafar Mirza) will be available to participate in the video conference of SAARC member countries on the issue.”
With SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) almost defunct as India took a hard position on Pakistan’s role in terrorism, Modi had taken the neighbouring countries by surprise with the proposal. While the number of coronavirus cases is relatively less in South Asia, the density of the population, the absence of robust public health infrastructure and lack of public hygiene are being seen as challenges, and would come up at the video-conference summit.
The G-7 leaders are planning to have a video-conference summit too, on Monday, on Covid-19.
In his tweet Friday afternoon, the Prime Minister said, “South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy. 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.”
Diplomats of at least three SAARC countries told The Sunday Express the move was a “pleasant surprise” and said they were looking forward to cooperation on the issue. Within hours of the PM’s tweet, leaders from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Afghanistan and Bangladesh welcomed the initiative. The SAARC Secretariat called Modi’s proposal “timely.”
A State Minister for Health, Mirza is leading Pakistan’s campaign against the coronavirus. He earlier served as Director, Health System, at WHO. Pakistan’s high-powered National Security Committee Friday took several decisions to boost efforts against coronavirus, including closing its western borders with Afghanistan and Iran. It also announced that while the Kartarpur corridor would remain open for Indian pilgrims, it was being shut for Pakistani visitors.
After India, Pakistan has the highest number of positive cases among SAARC countries (28), followed by Maldives (8), Afghanistan (7), Bangladesh (3), Sri Lanka (2), and Nepal and Bhutan with one case each. New Delhi has suspended bus and train services to Bangladesh.
Even if it is for the limited purpose of fighting COVID-19, the revival of the SAARC process is being seen as significant. India had abandoned the grouping as a concept after the terrorist attacks in Pathankot and Uri in 2016, saying Pakistan’s support to terrorist activities in the region meant it was no longer conducive, pushing instead the BIMSTEC grouping to marginalise Islamabad in the region.
Along with Afghanistan and Bangladesh, India had boycotted the SAARC Summit held in Pakistan in 2016, and there has been no movement on the SAARC dialogue process in the past three-and-a-half years. Sporadic attempts by Nepal in this direction in the past few years have been stonewalled by Delhi. Foreign ministers of India and Pakistan too have refused to engage with each other at SAARC foreign ministers’ meetings.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said his country was ready to share and learn from best practices of other SAARC countries. He tweeted, “Thank you for the great initiative Shri @narendramodi.”
Welcoming Modi’s initiative, Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering said, “This is what we call leadership… Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome.”