The unprecedented coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) crisis has united the SAARC countries as they adopted international travel bans, enforced strict lockdowns, announced special economic packages, set up a joint fund and banned all religious gatherings to battle the pandemic, earning them a praise from the World Bank for their quick response.
Throughout South Asia, the countries have responded proactively to the daunting challenge with India taking the lead by pledging USD 10 million toward a COVID-19 emergency fund, an initiative led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in bringing the SAARC leaders together through a video-conference last month amid rising coronavirus cases in the populous region.
Subsequently, Nepal and Afghanistan pledged USD 1 million each; Maldives committed USD 200,000 ; Bhutan USD 100,000; Bangladesh USD 1.5 million; Sri Lanka USD 5 million and Pakistan pledged USD 3 million to the fund .
Founded in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a regional inter-governmental organisation and geopolitical union of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Mr. Modi’s move revived the grouping as India had been distancing itself from the SAARC in the last three years, citing the security challenge facing the region from terror networks based in Pakistan.
Among the SAARC countries, India has the largest number of the COVID-19 cases (18,601), followed by Pakistan with 9,216 infections, while Bhutan has the lowest number of infections with just six patients.
“All governments in South Asia have responded rapidly to the crisis, but their task is daunting. Governments have imposed social-distancing measures, introduced relief packages to secure access to food and provided for delays in payments on taxes, rent, utilities and debt service,” said a study published by the World Bank this week.
The SAARC countries have recorded much lower infection rates in the region compared to the worst affected countries including the U.S., Italy, Spain, the U.K., Iran and China.
According to the figures till Sunday, the eight SAARC nations account 1.1%, approximately of the world total of 22,65,727 coronavirus cases. In terms of fatalities, the SAARC total is half a percentage point or (0.49%) or 768 of the total of 155,145 people who have died of the infection which originated in China’s Wuhan city.
Keeping the fight on against the pandemic, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly urged his people to show “self-discipline” and refrain from going outside to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed 192 people in the country.
Mr. Khan, whose government earlier banned prayers in mosques, allowed conditional congregational prayers during the month of Ramzan but urged clerics to avoid big gatherings. Ramzan will start later this week.
Pakistan has been under a lockdown for over a month now to check the spread of coronavirus.
Mr. Khan has also unveiled a number of schemes for daily wage earners who are the worst hit economically due to the lockdown. However, there have been reports of discrimination in the distribution of ration among minorities.
Sri Lanka, which planned to partially lift the lockdown from Monday to boost economic activity, dropped its decision and extended the restrictions till April 27 following a sudden spike of 41 coronavirus cases in a single day.
The island nation has been under a 24-hour curfew since March 20 to combat the deadly viral infection.
The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, which was originally scheduled for April 25, was postponed for nearly two months in the wake of the coronavirus crisis that has so far infected 295 and killed seven people in the country.
Bangladesh, which has been declared as a risky area for COVID-19, has suspended congregational prayers at mosques across the country in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus that has infected 2,948 people and killed 101 others. The country is under lockdown since last month and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has warned that the country may face a massive hike in COVID-19 cases in April.
Nepal, which is under lockdown till April 27, has reported 31 COVID-19 cases. So far, there were no fatalities in the Himalayan nation. Twelve Indians were among the 14 new coronavirus cases reported in Nepal on Friday.
Nepalese authorities on Saturday sealed 14 mosques in Sunsari district and quarantined 33 Indians and seven Pakistanis taking refuge there.
As part of its efforts to combat the coronavirus, the government has released 421 inmates from various prisons across the country following a recent Supreme Court order.
Afghanistan has 1,026 confirmed COVID-19 cases. A majority of the infected people are from Herat province, bordering Iran - a country severely hit by the pandemic. The Afghan government imposed a lockdown on April 12 to curb the spread of the virus.
Doctors and clerics are joining forces and travelling the country to urge people to stay indoors. Even the Taliban has joined the efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Bhutan, which reported just six coronavirus cases, has imposed several measures aimed at preventing an outbreak, including guidelines for businesses to close at 7 p.m. every day.
The Maldives put its capital Male under a 14-day lockdown on Friday after eight people tested positive over the last three days, taking the total COVID-19 cases to 69. The government had earlier stopped all travel to and from the tropical islands and shut down businesses.