Almost moribund and dehydrated, the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seems to be getting a fresh lease of life and a purpose, which many felt was missing from the regional body. It could well be limited in scope and, perhaps short-lived, but something the countries in the region must cheer for.
After the aborted SAARC summit in November 2016 in Islamabad, following a terrorist attack in Uri, Kashmir, the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has brought together the top political leadership of SAARC countries, which accounts for 23 percent of world's population.
Though Pakistan was represented at a non-political level, the video conference meeting initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 15 saw the leaders of the region going into a huddle to chalk out a plan to fight a pandemic that has the world deeply worried.
The sheer magnitude of the challenge can be gauged from the fact that the deadly virus has so far claimed over 6,000 lives, infected over 160,000 people and touched every continent, barring Antarctica.
Certainly not on same scale, but every country in the region has been affected from the spread of the virus in some way or other. The spread of the virus might not be as vast as it is in the West or in the East, but that is hardly a consolation. Considering the Covid-19 has been spreading exponentially across the globe, South Asia, with a creaky health infrastructure, stares at the larger risk than most regions where healthcare systems are more robust.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share border with Iran, one of the worst-affected countries. Countries in the region, especially, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have strong migrant population. India alone is estimated to have 450 million migrants out of its 1.3 billion population.
Except a few, many countries in the region are known for crowded public transports and overflowing common spaces that make social distancing, one of the most effective precautionary measures to minimise risk of Covid-19, a difficult task to achieve. Tourism-driven economies, such as the Maldives have started feeling the pinch.
There is no way to fight a pandemic except through collective means. This is all the more so in the region that cannot boast of having a robust heathcare system. Founded in 1985, and though the SAARC charter excludes the discussion of bilateral and contentious issues, India-Pakistan bilateral issues have always come in the way of regional integration, and has stopped the grouping from realising its potentials.
SAARC has been discussing a robust health agenda. The Delhi Declaration on Public Health Challenges, adopted at the fifth meeting of SAARC health ministers in New Delhi in 2015, was an ideal blueprint to follow up.
It entailed plans for universal health coverage, improving health regulatory systems, preparedness for emerging diseases and the challenges from antimicrobial resistance. The declaration adopted by the ministers rightly stressed that "infectious diseases and pathogens do not recognise political and geographical boundaries."
However, the lack of political will leads to floundering of the lofty ideals. There can be any number of indicators to prove this point — intra-regional trade is less than 5 percent of total trade among these countries. The corresponding figure 25 percent in Southeast Asia bloc. This region accounts for 2 percent of world goods trade too.
Covid-19 has showed how fragile a collective response system can be in a deeply-integrated world.
Every crisis is also an opportunity, and this one provides for South Asian countries to come together to fight a common enemy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the lead. When it comes to initiatives under the SAARC framework, ripeness is all.Jayanth Jacob is a foreign policy commentator who covered the ministry of external affairs for more than a decade. Twitter: @jayanthjacob. Views are personal.