Pakistan calls for joint efforts to fight virus menace in South Asia

Updated 16 Mar 2020

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At video conference of Saarc leaders, PM’s aide expresses concern over emergence of coronavirus in occupied Kashmir. — Reuters/File
At video conference of Saarc leaders, PM’s aide expresses concern over emergence of coronavirus in occupied Kashmir. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: Stating that no nation and no region on earth can afford to be unresponsive to the coronavirus pandemic, Pakistan on Sunday called for fighting “the most serious global health emergency in the last 100 years” with collective efforts and suggested that a “regional mechanism” be developed by member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) for sharing “disease surveillance data, prevalence and incidence of communicable diseases and public health events of regional significance”.

The proposal was made by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Zafar Mirza during a video conference of the Saarc leaders hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss and formulate a joint strategy for curbing the spread of coronavirus, scientifically known as COVID-19, which had already infected over 155,000 people in 138 countries, resulting in nearly 6,000 deaths across the globe.

Besides Mr Modi, the video conference was attended by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sharma Oli, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The SAPM also raised the issue of lockdown in India-held Kashmir since August last year and urged New Delhi to lift the lockdown to ensure containment and relief efforts in the territory in view of health emergency. “It is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir and in view of a health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown in the territory must be lifted immediately,” he added.

At video conference of Saarc leaders, PM’s aide expresses concern over emergence of coronavirus in occupied Kashmir

“Pakistan shares common concern over the potential of COVID-19 affecting South Asia. All our countries have confirmed cases. There is no room for any complacency. While hoping for the best we have to be prepared for the worst,” Dr Mirza said.

Later, the Inter-Services Public Relations, the media affairs wing of the military, emphasised in a release the SAPM’s call for India. “Ensure supplies and support reaches unhindered to the people of Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir,” the ISPR quoted Dr Mirza as having stated at the conference.

Among other measures, the SAPM proposed instituting exit screening by member states of Saarc for travellers in the region and instituting mechanisms for learning from the effective efforts of China, a Saarc observer state, which had effectively addressed the COVID-19 challenge.

“If our health and disease surveillance systems and preventive measures are unable to cope [with it], the human and economic cost alone can be staggering. The accumulative impact will dampen the region-wide growth prospects and negatively impact the national development agendas,” the SAPM said, adding that “at this current stage of development, the Saarc states can’t afford such a setback”.

Pakistan, he said, had been involved in containment efforts right from the outset of the disease outbreak. “We have been alert to the dangers, and have put in place appropriate protocols for the safety and health of our people. We have been matching our measures to real-time threat assessments. While we have stressed the need for caution, we have strongly advised against panic,” he said, adding that “a calm, calculated and deliberate response is the need for the hour”.

Dr Mirza said the diagnosed cases in Pakistan had been isolated and contacts were being traced proactively, adding that Pakistan’s proactive and timely strategy had been acknowledged and commended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The SAPM told the Saarc leaders that Pakistan’s response strategy had four pillars – governance and financing, prevention, mitigation and communication – and Prime Minister Imran Khan was personally overseeing these efforts. He also apprised them of the decisions taken by the National Security Committee in its meeting on March 13, which was held for the first time on a national health issue.

He said COVID-19 had been characterised as a global pandemic, but at the same time it was deemed controllable, provided timely and appropriate public health measures were put in place. The pandemic, he said, had forced them “to think not in terms of nations and states, but as a collective”. The challenge at hand demanded sagacity, vision and synergy of actions, he added.

Dr Mirza called for empowering and giving mandate to the Saarc Secretariat to act as a platform for regional efforts to fight the pandemic. He reiterated Pakistan’s earlier proposal of hosting Saarc health ministers’ conference.

Dr Mirza highlighted the danger posed by COVID-19 to the Saarc region, which is home to one-fifth of humanity, several of the world’s largest mega-cities, and many of the most densely populated regions. He was of the view that an effective coordination at all levels was deemed critically important.

“The unprecedented challenge, therefore, warrants unprecedented response. We must recognise that the national and local responses remain the most critically important,” he said, adding that it is equally important to pursue evidence and science-based responses as stigmatisation and stereotyping was counter-productive.

“Mercifully, the Saarc region has so far evaded the worst ravages but given the experience of other countries in other continents, there is absolutely no room for any compliancy,” the SAPM warned.

State-run APP reported that President Ashraf Ghani raised the issue of closure of the Pak-Afghan border in the conference.

In response, SAPM Mirza said the closure of border crossings was a temporary measure taken in the light of the WHO guidelines. “In consultation with WHO, we have been taking steps to restrict movement to and from the affected areas, regulate lights, institute detection measures at entry points, and establish quarantine controls at border crossings,” he added.

According to foreign news agency Reuters, Indian Prime Minister Modi proposed setting up an emergency fund to fight the coronavirus outbreak in South Asia with New Delhi offering $10 million to get it going.

“Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions,” the news agency quoted the Indian premier as having told the Saarc leaders via video conference.

Mr Modi said India would also offer rapid response teams and other expertise to deal with the crisis. He said there were fewer than 150 cases in the countries comprising Saarc, but the situation ahead was uncertain.

“This is why it would be most valuable for all of us to share our perspectives,” he said.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020