Re-Engaging in SAARC: Public Health Diplomacy at its core

The hub of COVID-19 has been rapidly shifting towards South Asia, with more than 150,000 people affected in the subcontinent today with this deadly virus. According to the World Health Organisation(WHO), nearly every country in South Asia has been affected due to this, with more than 86,000 reported cases so far in India; Pakistan has reported confirmed cases of around 39,000; Sri Lanka around 1000, Afghanistan around 6,500; Bangladesh approximately 21,000; the Maldives around 1000; Nepal around 300 and Bhutan around 21.

Unfortunately, as the earlier reports stated that the month of May would be the peak, but gradually the notion is changing, and reports say the peak of these cases would be in around the month of July, thus these numbers are anticipated to increase. As the COVID-19 spreads across South Asia, the SAARC held its first virtual summit to begin coordinating the region’s response to the crisis. This was an important step towards understanding how diplomacy in public health across the region is providing a mechanism for countries in South Asia to reengage with the structures and mission of the regional organisation.

Established 35 years ago, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an organization of South Asian nations for establishing a framework for regional integration and cooperation in South Asia. Prior  to this,  the idea of South Asian integration was discussed in various conferences. In 1985, the seven founding members, Bangladesh,  Bhutan,  India,  Maldives,  Nepal, Pakistan and  Sri  Lanka formally adopted its charter providing for the promotion of social, economic and cultural development within the South Asian region and also for friendship and cooperation with other developing countries, thus trying to cement the relationship to ensure regional diplomacy, followed by Afghanistan which joined the organization in 2007.

The International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) a framework by the WHO explains, “The purpose and scope of these Regulations are to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade”.  IHR has created centres on a set of binding global legal instruments, which provide a normative framework for the prevention and control of the international spread of disease. The WHO, which plays a crucial role in surveillance and risk assessment, uses the IHR framework to require states to notify the organisation of any health crisis occurring within their territory, to collect and provide detailed information of that crisis, and to take a range of measures necessary to control and manage the spread of the disease. Under this framework, states are also required to develop and maintain their capacities in order to promptly detect, notify, and respond to public health risks and emergencies.

SAARC leaders virtual meeting on COVID-19

On 15 March, member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held a video conference to discuss measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the region. The member took the initiative that they must ‘prepare, act and succeed together’ to fight the spread of the pandemic in the subcontinent. They recognised the urgency of regional cooperation and COVID-19 responsive measures. Furthermore, they emphasised the need to ‘analyse and address the long-term economic consequences’ of the pandemic in the region. Finally, member states agreed to speed up the consultations at the ministerial level and to formulate a ‘comprehensive regional strategy’ against COVID-19. This virtual meeting reflects the idea of public health diplomacy at its core to engage member states towards regional cooperation.

Firstly, the meeting is of diplomatic importance, four years after India had declined to meet for the 2016 SAARC Meeting citing cross border terrorism. Secondly, India’s decision to hold the conference despite its reservations against talking to Pakistan reflects a befitting attitude of a leader that has risen above bilateral animosity to engage all nations to think of the larger regional good, during a health crisis. It showed a mature understanding that global challenges require a coordinated response. Also, when the forum of SAARC was used by Pakistan to raise several issues not concerning the topic, still India took the lead to not make a response to such points and be focused to build a step further to ensure regional cooperation. Major countries of the world including the US and Russia have lauded India’s efforts towards preparing South Asia and taking the lead for a collective response.

India proposed a COVID-19 emergency fund for SAARC countries to fight the pandemic, extending $10 million as India’s contribution to the fund. Other countries also have extended contribution to the emergency fund, that is, Sri Lanka ($5 million), Bangladesh ($1.5 million), Nepal ($1 million), Afghanistan ($1 million), Maldives ($200,000) and Bhutan ($100,000) taking the total amount in the COVID-19 Emergency Fund to $18.3 million. Pakistan’s contribution has been proposed to the SAARC Secretariat as $3 million. Since the leaders’ video conference, the senior health professionals of SAARC countries also met on another video conference on March 26 to exchange experiences of combating the spread of COVID-19 thus far and share best practices. SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU), Gandhinagar has also set up a website on COVID-19 for shared use of SAARC countries. A ‘special cell’ in the Ministry of External Affairs of India is coordinating and monitoring coordination of regional efforts with SAARC countries. 

South Asian countries can manage this unprecedented threat collectively; as doing so would not only be in their national interests, but would also improve bilateral (in case of India and Pakistan) and multilateral (in case of SAARC as a region) relations, and deepen their mutual understanding in terms of combating against the pandemic, strengthening the international and regional cooperation, and adopting and implementing the national and international responsive measures available.

Though there has been apprehension, of China making a lead as a global power in the near future, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could be a tactical way for China to move forward. On the other hand, the USA’s failure to show direction during this pandemic, have paved way to regional groupings to play an important role in this multipolar world. The world politics will change after COVID-19, but only after the epidemic has passed will we be able to check whether the revival of SAARC was utilised to demonstrate to the world that regional coordination of policies in response to coronavirus outbreak can be successful in South Asian region. South Asian countries should act decisively and cooperatively, as a matter of urgency. Such coordinated efforts could not only herald new opportunities for the regional bloc to collaborate in a meaningful and long-lasting way, but also transform the global politics in the near future.



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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Aishe Ghosh

Aishe Ghosh is a Research Scholar at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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