Home / News / India /  Coronavirus: Modi calls for SAARC nations' conference to build strategy

NEW DELHI : In the wake of the rapid spread of Coronavirus infections across countries including South Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday proposed a conference of the leaders of South Asian nations to discuss coordination and strategy to combat the advance of the disease.

“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus. We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet,"Modi said in a Twitter post. It was a move welcomed by all SAARC countries except Pakistan.

SAARC refers to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – which groups together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives. Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka besides India. Born in the mid 1980s, the grouping has little to show for itself given that progress on issues like regional integration and connectivity has been slow mainly due to infighting between India and Pakistan. Pakistan was to host a summit of SAARC leaders in 2016 but India,Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh pulled out citing Pakistan’s support to terrorism as not conducive for regional cooperation. No summit of SAARC has been held since.

“Our planet is battling the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. At various levels, governments and people are trying their best to combat it. South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy," Modi said in a second post.

Modi’s call for collective action came on a day India announced it was closing 18 of 37 border check points to ensure people from neighbouring countries were properly screened before they came into India. India also announced the suspension of passenger trains and buses between India and Bangladesh and closure of border markets between the two countries. Indian officials however said that visa free entry for Nepalese and Bhutanese nationals will continue.

Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka welcomed Modi’s offer given that all South Asian countries have reported SARS-COV2 infection cases.

Earlier this week, India sent some medical assistance to the Maldives to help the countries deal with its cases and detection.

“This is what we call leadership. As members of this region, we must come together in such times. Smaller economies are hit harder, so we must coordinate. With your leadership, I have no doubt we will see immediate and impactful outcome. Looking forward to the video conference," Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering said in a Twitter post. Others tweeted similar messages though Pakistan had not responded to

Modi’s suggestion that analysts like former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said was a “pragmatic" one given that India shares an open border with Nepal and frontiers allowing movement of people with Bangladesh.

“Measures that India takes to combat the disease could be compromised if all countries in South Asia are not on the same page," he added.

It is unclear whether Modi’s move is a gesture towards engaging Islamabad on issues other than those emerging out of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Tensions have been high between India and Pakistan since February 2019 when a suicide bomber exploded a car full of explosives near an Indian security convoy in Kashmir killing 40 personnel. India bombed a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and Islamabad retaliated targeting military installations in Kashmir. Tensions mounted again after India revoked the special status granted to Kashmir under its constitution and integrated the region more closely with the rest of the country. Pakistan, infuriated by India’s so called unilateral action, has been highlighting what it calls human rights abuses in Kashmir and calling for mediation from third parties and countries.

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