Dr Zafar Mirza at Saarc conference proposes 'regional mechanism' to cope with coronavirus

Updated March 15, 2020

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A screengrab showing representatives of Saarc member countries at a video conference. — DawnNewsTV
A screengrab showing representatives of Saarc member countries at a video conference. — DawnNewsTV

Pakistan on Sunday proposed that a "regional mechanism" be developed by members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) so that the countries can exchange "disease surveillance data in real time" to curb the spread of viruses such as the COVID-19.

The suggestion was put forward by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza, who was representing Pakistan at a video conference of Saarc member countries being held to formulate a joint strategy for curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the region.

'Ghabrana nahi hai!': Here's everything Pakistan has done so far to fight the coronavirus pandemic

While addressing the heads of member states, Mirza noted that while the novel coronavirus has been declared a pandemic, "it has been deemed controllable as well". He acknowledged that the South Asian region, which houses several mega-cities and one-fifth of the world's population, was at risk of the virus spreading further as each of the Saarc countries has reported positive cases.

He urged the member countries to follow guidelines set by the WHO and also learn from the experience of Saarc observer states, "particularly China, which has effectively addressed the COVID-19 challenge, despite being [the country] from where it originated".

Mirza called attention to the importance of "effective coordination at all levels" in the present situation and warned against "stignatisation and stereotyping", terming them "counter-productive".

"The pandemic forces us to think not in terms of nations and states, but as a collective," he told the heads of the member states. "The unprecedented challenge, therefore, warrants unprecedented responses. We must recognise that the national and local responses remain the most critically important.

"It is equally important to pursue evidence and science-based responses. Stigmatisation and stereotyping is counter-productive."

He concluded by saying that "the challenge at hand, demands sagacity, vision and synergy."

The conference was also attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajid, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and other South Asian leaders.

Emergency fund

Indian Prime Minister Modi proposed setting up an emergency fund to fight the coronavirus outbreak in South Asia and offered $10 million to get it going, as the number of confirmed infections in India rose past 100.

“Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told regional leaders via video conference, adding that India would also offer rapid response teams and other expertise to deal with the crisis.

Pakistan proposes meeting of Saarc health ministers

While speaking to DawnNewsTV, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that Pakistan had decided to participate in the Saarc conference "despite India's negative attitude" in order to play its role as a "responsible state".

"We are a responsible state and we will act responsibly," he said. The foreign minister also shared that Pakistan has proposed to host a meeting of Saarc countries' health ministers to formulate a "coordinated response" to the health crisis.

He reiterated Mirza's suggestion that member states should learn from the steps taken by China to control the pandemic, which originated in Wuhan.

Chalking out strategy

The video conference of the heads of Saarc member states was called after Modi proposed the idea on Friday.

In a tweet, he said: “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.”

He called for leaving no stone unturned for ensuring that people in South Asia, home to nearly one-fourth of the world population, remain healthy.

The idea was welcomed by all countries in the region and Pakistan immediately confirmed its participation. Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui tweeted: “The threat of #COVID-19 requires coordinated efforts at global and regional level. We have communicated that SAPM on Health will be available to participate in the video conference of #SAARC member countries on the issue”.