With the US silent on leading a global response to fight the pandemic, the onus is on regional blocks to cooperate and do what they can to minimize the potentially large-scale, tragic losses to societies and economies. But there is little hope when the European Union, which is the closest the world has seen to a fine-tuned regional machine, is also finding it difficult to find its feet when most its members are suffering.
The moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) still has a role to play, as South Asia faces similar socioeconomic challenges. In the middle of March, India hosted a SAARC video-conference for heads of government of eight member countries to come up with a joint response to tackle Covid-19. Pakistan is also trying to convene a similar video-con for SAARC health ministers.
A SAARC Emergency Fund created after Modi’s video-con has received over $18 million in commitments from member countries, except Pakistan, as of March 26. Pakistan hasn’t made a financial commitment yet as it wants the Fund to be placed under SAARC secretariat instead of Indian government. Another spanner in the works is the Indo-Pak Ping-Pong over Kashmir that threatens SAARC revival at this hour.
But the Covid-19 has just begun in South Asia, and peaceniks expect that the pandemic will force the two major South Asian countries to rethink how they approach regional cooperation and development. This is not to say that all will be hunky dory by the time the world reaches the other side of the horrifying curve. But there are some positives that the crisis may accrue in the coming months. Pakistan has a seat at the table and it must not allow itself to be excluded from regional cooperation on Covid-19.
At the very least, SAARC nations can start sharing early experience from their individual emergency responses relating to disease surveillance, cash transfers, travel curbs, food production, and supply-chain management. Everyone doesn’t need to shoot in the dark, so better seek help or provide help on the do’s and don’ts of pandemic management in South Asia that is rife with poverty and high urban density.
How will the cooperation take place? In that context, it must be noted that South Asian countries, including India and Pakistan, have had to declare Covid-19 as a “national disaster” to use federal government powers as “epidemic” laws do not provide legal cover. The member countries’ respective disaster management bodies can use the existing SAARC Disaster Management Center, which was set up in 2006, to share information, experiences, training materials, and if possible, emergency support.
If right lessons are learnt from this pandemic, hardliners in the region will hopefully realize that the real enemy of the people is low human development, which manifests itself in dilapidated public health and education infrastructure. If the coronavirus crisis ends up leaving such clairvoyance in its wake, it will be a great leap forward for erstwhile enemies to turn the page and focus on fighting poverty and inequality.