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COVID 19 & SAARC NATIONS
UNDERLYING CHALLENGES, RESPONSIBILITIES & POSSIBILITIES
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) – a conglomerate of eight countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and later joined by Afghanistan – An economic and political organization based on the foundation of respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs of the Member States, and mutual benefit – continues to have many disadvantageous distinctions: mass poverty with its persistent evils of ignorance, ill health, technological gap, territorial disputes among the central states of India and Pakistan.
Well-known internal conflicts within the region need no emphasis. Internal rift, trust deficit has prevented the region from realizing its potential of economic progress, political influence, and cultural enrichment.
Apart from territorial nationalism, historical mistrust amongst itself, the densely populated South Asian region faces the fresh challenge of the 21st century- a looming threat- the COVID19 pandemic.
It has caught the world off guard. The most developed countries, with the best infrastructures, desired health budget allocations, the best resource availability, have struggled to cope with this unprecedented public health crisis. No amount of technical, scientific know-how has addressed the cause or has the solution in sight. One can only assume the havoc it can have on countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, if the situation in India is left unattended for any longer – for it has the Dominos effect.
South Asian countries, which are still developing countries, suffer from a population boom, overburdened healthcare system, lack of medical aid affordability, accessibility, and are home to the world’s most crowded cities. The pandemic scope has been difficult to judge in the country of 100 million, most of whom live in densely packed cities.
According to The World Economic Forum report, based on UN data, the world’s two busiest cities are Dhaka, cramming 44,500 people into each square km, and Mumbai squeezing in 31,000.
The low-budget health sector of the South Asian countries- which are the significant contributors to the global burden of disease and disability, controls the narrative. The current shared problem of the Covid pandemic is not only India’s disaster. A catastrophic surge of COVID-19 infections has hit India the hardest after its prime minister boasted of defeating the pandemic and following multiple massive crowding events. New cases and deaths shoot up nearly 30-times during late March and early April. The health system has been affected, leaving patients desperate for oxygen and medical supplies.
The B. 1.617 variant first found in India is now spreading well beyond the country with the potential to affect not only the neighboring countries but also the world. The possibility of the virus spreading through Africa, where a vaccination campaign had barely started, is now jeopardized by the situation in India, which stopped exporting vaccines many countries like
Europe, US were relying upon.
South Asia exists as a geographical unit. SAARC's most important role right now is to be instrumental in providing a platform not only for dialogue but a constructive way forward in formulating specific, prompt policies to help INDIA, given the COVID situation and its management been blown out of proportion, and the country needs assistance from every quarter possible.
An institution that is mandated to facilitate regional cooperation. Dealing with covid is an upheaval task. So is the time to put words into action. Emphasis on excellence is crucial to ensure quality in service provision, program planning, and implementation to ensure that health services are provided efficiently and effectively, so that community needs are well cared for.
While regional cooperation and cross-border collaboration are increasingly popular, an essential aspect of designing beneficial partnerships is the legal and regulatory framework supporting such collaboration. To this end, the responsibility lies with government officials to act in genuine earnest at the earliest by being well aware of the legal frameworks that have proven efficacious in supporting collaborative partnerships in the past.
Making SAARC productive will be a win on a larger canvas, but it will primarily benefit the people of South Asia. Some significant issues, even if moderately addressed, can lend credence to the existence of SAARC and help it become more reliable and efficacious. However, the question remains- Given the current scenario of the collapsed healthcare system in India, one question that occupies the mind is whether efforts on regional cooperation and collaboration meant to look good only on paper, or do they have the potential to stand the test of time? The persistent and prominent question – Will South Asia rise to the occasion by keeping the age-long politics aside and come forward to help the neighbor in dire need of help?
The short-term partnership to fight the pandemic could bring longer-term benefits by strengthening regional institutions and improving regional infrastructure and connectivity. Now is the perfect time to set the tone for any or all future collaborations.