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India proposes COVID-19 Emergency Fund

MB Subba & Younten Tshedup

Leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) welcomed India’s proposal to set up a COVID-19 emergency fund when they came together through a video conference yesterday to chalk out a common strategy for the region to fight the pandemic.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to contribute USD 10 million to start the fund. Any of the eight SAARC countries would be able to use the fund to meet the cost of immediate action on COVID-19.

“The fund could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us,” PM Modi said. Most of the leaders supported the proposal, saying that they would soon join the fund.

He said that foreign secretaries of the member countries through their embassies could coordinate quickly to finalise the proposed COVID-19 emergency fund.

It was the first time in five years that heads of state and government from the SAARC had come together on a single platform. SAARC leaders had last met in November 2014 at the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu.

 

Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering commended the proposal and assured Bhutan’s support.

Sharing how Bhutan with His Majesty The King at the helm, successfully managed to deal with its lone COVID-19 patient who was evacuated to his home country America on the request of his family on  March 13, Lyonchhen said that it is now essential that all the SAARC countries came together to fight the common enemy that know no boundaries.

He emphasised on sharing the limited resources and technology among member countries. “This would be an uphill task, which is why it’s important for all of us to be on the same page,” he said, adding that a plan should also be in place to look after the vulnerable economies in the region.

 

What leaders said

Thanking PM Modi for the initiative to combat COVID-19, President of the Maldives, Ibrahim Solih, said that COVID-19 had impacted the economy of his country. He supported the coordinated approach to deal with COVID-19.

“I welcome Modi’s proposal, especially on preparation of a longer term recovery plan and to form the COVID-19 emergency fund,” he said.

He said that the bilateral cooperation should be extended to benefit countries in situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli,  said that Indian PM’s initiative was timely. He said that the region needed to ensure the continued and smooth supply of essential medicines.

“I welcome  Modiji’s proposal to establish the COVID-19 emergency fund and India’s contribution in it. The pandemic is going to cost all of us dearly if it is prolonged,” he said.

He suggested that the way of greeting people with Namaste rather than shaking hands could avoid potential threat of human-to-human transmission of the disease.

Pakistan’s state minister of health, Dr Zafar Mirza, said that a calculated and deliberate response was needed to contain COVID-19. He said that COVID-19 was “deemed controllable”.

He proposed a SAARC health ministers’ conference to discuss issues related to COVID-19. He said that a regional mechanism needed to be developed to exchange disease surveillance data in real time to stop the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other diseases.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said SAARC countries should formulate a mechanism for the regional economy to mitigate the problems posed by coronavirus.

He emphasised the need for SAARC countries to work together not only on COVID-19, but also on similar situations in the future. He said that it was important for the countries to control the border to contain the disease.

Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani, proposed a common framework for telemedicine to combat the new coronavirus pandemic. He said that since India is a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India could help SAARC countries in learning best practices from China.

Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, expressed her hope that the SAARC countries would be able to combat the situation together.  “We need to cooperate and collaborate closely to fight the pandemic. Bangladesh is ready to share its resources including human capacity and expertise.”

PM Modi said, “We all agree that we are facing a serious challenge. We can respond best by coming together. Collaboration, not confusion; preparation, not panic.”

He added that India has made special efforts to reach out to groups vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus and worked to quickly ramp up capacity in the system including through training of medical staff.

This is neither the first nor the last, that such a pandemic would affect the region, he added. For this, experts in India are brainstorming on a long-term economic plan to insulate the trade and business from possible COVID-19 impact.

A press release from the SAARC secretariat stated that the SAARC leaders recognised the unprecedented threat posed by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the urgency with which the member states needed to work together to prevent and contain the spread of the virus.  They also recognised the need to analyze and address the long-term economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.

Among the proposals shared by leaders included continuing the consultation process through meetings at the ministerial and experts’ level; identifying the nodal experts to take further action on the proposals discussed during the conference; and formulating a comprehensive regional strategy against COVID-19 through the SAARC process and other appropriate mechanisms.

In his closing remark, Prime Minister Modi said that the regional cooperation and the common strategy should be a model for other countries. The videoconference concluded with a “Namaste” from PM Modi, a greeting that is becoming popular across the world as the popular handshake is seen as unsafe in the wake of the new coronavirus. 

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