India-Pakistan rivalry deprives regional focus on fighting pandemic in South Asia

[TamilNet, Friday, 24 April 2020, 15:32 GMT]
Pakistan broke the almost one month silence of the regional grouping, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as it initiated a virtual conference of health ministers on Thursday. The move comes a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the initiative for COVID-19 Emergency Fund through a video conference with his counterparts last month. The meeting on Thursday was attended by all member states and the SAARC Secretary-General, Esala Ruwan Weerakoon. However, most countries had reduced their representation to below ministerial rank, Indian media noted.

“Though Pakistan contended Sri Lanka’s health minister joined the video conference, people familiar with developments said the country was represented by the deputy director general of public health,” reported New Delhi-based Hindustan Times on Thursday.

When Indian PM launched the move last month, the heads of states of seven countries, except Pakistan, attended.

Pakistan deployed Dr Zafar Mirza, a ministerial rank special assistant to its prime minister to represent the country at the meeting with Mr Modi.

Offering USD 3 million to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund, Pakistan also demanded the funds be spent through the SAARC secretariat and not directly by India.

SAARC Secretary, Esala Weerakoon, is a Sinhala career diplomat who has taken up the position since 01 March. He served as an additional senior secretary to SL president before he was appointed SAARC Secretary. Weerakoon was SL High Commissioner to India between 2015 and 2018 and he was Colombo’s Ambassador to Norway, particularly during the genocidal onslaught on Eezham Tamils in 2009.

Statement issued by Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, follows:

Pakistan Organizes SAARC Health Ministers’ Video Conference on Covid-19

Pakistan organized SAARC Health Ministers’ Video Conference on Covid-19 today. All Member States and the SAARC Secretary General, Esala Ruwan Weerakoon participated in the Conference.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Services and Regulations Dr. Zafar Mirza chaired the meeting. Mrs. Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Minister for Health and Indigenous Medical Services of Sri Lanka; Mr. Nabraj Raut, State Minister for Health and Population of Nepal; Dr. Wahid Majrooh, Deputy Minister for Healthcare Services of Afghanistan; Dr. Ugen Dophu, Secretary Health of Bhutan, Prof. Dr. Abul Kalam Azad, Director General of Health Services of Bangladesh; Ms. Maimoona Aboobakuru, Director General of Public Health of Maldives; and Prof. Rajiv Garg, Director General of Health Services of India led their respective delegations.

Issues including real-time sharing of information and clinical data, capacity building and training of medical and paramedical staff, supply of medicines and medical equipment, research coordination and enhancing cooperation with front line international organizations including the WHO came under discussion.

Sharing Pakistan’s perspective, the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Zafar Mirza underscored that South Asia was particularly vulnerable on account of its high population densities, fragile health systems and rudimentary disease surveillance. The uncertainties associated with the outbreak had left no room for complacency. However, it also posed an opportunity for South Asia to strengthen health systems.

Dr. Mirza briefed the participants about the containment and relief measures being taken by Pakistan. The National Coordination Committee headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan was focussed on implementing National Action Plan against Covid-19. He highlighted Pakistan’s strategy of smart lock downs aimed at containing the virus, while ensuring that economic activity was minimally impeded. Participants agreed to work together to adopt international best practices keeping in view the specific socio-economic circumstances of South Asia. All heads of delegations presented their country situations and efforts to contain the outbreak at national levels.

Proposals to fast-track creation of linkages among medical universities, academia and research institutions came under review. During the meeting, Pakistan proposed greater coordination among health authorities of SAARC Member States in the context of combating the pandemic and in this regard, suggested activating the SAARC Technical Committee on Health and Population Activities. It was agreed to enhance cooperation in the health sector, particularly in the context of efforts to combat the virus at the regional level.

The Health Ministers’ Video Conference was a reaffirmation of Pakistan’s commitment to the SAARC process and its efforts to forge closer cooperation among Member States in situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

All Member States and the SAARC Secretary General appreciated Pakistan’s timely initiative of organizing the Video Conference.

23 April 2020

Statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs follows:

India’s participation in the video conference of SAARC Health Ministers on COVID-19 hosted by Pakistan

April 23, 2020

At the video conference of SAARC Health Ministers on COVID-19 hosted by Pakistan on 23 April 2020, India was represented by Director General of Health Services, assisted by experts from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and Indian Council of Medical Research. Most SAARC countries were represented at the official level.

This event followed India’s earlier initiative of hosting a video conference of senior health professionals on 26 March 2020, which had proved to be a productive and outcome-oriented exercise to promote greater regional cooperation against Covid-19.

On India’s part, building on the briefing made at the March 26 video conference, a detailed account was presented on India’s comprehensive response to the current Covid-19 situation, including India stepping up production of essential materials and medicines and enhancing capabilities in research on drugs and vaccines. At the meeting, India also highlighted the successful use and promising future of new and innovative technology-based solutions such as the mobile app ‘Aarogya Setu’ to maximize community outreach and intervention.

The sentiment of cooperation and solidarity in the region intensified by Prime Minister Modi’s video conference with SAARC Leaders on 15 March 2020 has led to much progress in the fight against Covid-19 through a series of concrete follow-up measures aimed at easing the suffering of the people in the region. The setting up and use of SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund, creation of a dedicated website developed by SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU) Gandhinagar and promotion of stand-alone networking of health and trade officials for their interaction in real time are among the visible practical steps.

India has developed an electronic platform, namely ‘SAARC COVID19 Information Exchange Platform (COINEX)’ for use by all SAARC countries. As the next major step, the platform will be launched for exchange of specialized information and tools on COVID-19 among designated health professionals in the region. COINEX will also offer and facilitate various online training resources and e-learning modules.

The virtual meeting was an occasion for India to reaffirm its strong commitment towards greater sharing of knowledge,expertise and best practices in the joint fight against Covid-19 for the larger regional good.

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External Links:
Hindustan Times: Pakistan organises Saarc video conference on Covid-19



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