The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation should create a fund to fight the threat of COVID-19 , Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Sunday. Addressing the first ever video conference among the heads of governments of the SAARC member countries, Mr. Modi extednded $10 million as India's contribution for the fund.
"We all agree that we are facing a serious challenge. We do not as yet know what shape the pandemic will take in the coming days. It is clear that we have to work together. In this spirit of collaboration, let me share a few ideas on what India can offer to this joint effort. I propose we create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund which could be based on voluntary contribution from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of 10 million US dollars for this fund," said Prime Minister Modi proposing the idea.
The Indian leader said the Foreign Secretary of India Harsh Vardhan Shringla and his counterparts from other member countries of SAARC should meet and decide the plan ahead for the creation of the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund.
Apart from Prime Minister Modi, the video conference was addressed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli of Nepal, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of Maldvies, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanisan and Zafar Mirza, Special Assistant on Health to Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan.
The Pakistani representative pointed at the reports of COVID-19 from Jammu and Kashmir and said "all lockdown... must be lifted immediately". Kashmir has a large number of pilgrims and students who continue to remain in Iran as India has been carrying out medical tests before evacuating them.
Prime Minister Hasina pitched for the creation of an institution to fight contagious diseases that pose threat to public health and exteded the support of Bangladesh for the initiative. "It is extremely important to create an institution to prevent and fight against any public health threat in South Asian region in the future. We can work together in future and Bangladesh will be happy to host such an institution if you all kindly agree," said Ms Hasina.
She also expressed appreciation over the fact that the leaders of the SAARC countries got together on video conference after a "long time" indicating that the regional group's summit meeting has not taken place since 2014 because of India-Pakistan tension.
Proposal from the South Asian leaders came days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) floated the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund with the help of corporate bodies, foundations and the UN Foundation.
Addressing the impact of the threat that the pandemic poses on the region's economies, President Solih said that the economy of Maldives will be deeply affected as the tourist inflow from Italy, China and Europe - main source of tourists for the country - have dried up. Bhutan's PM Tshering also highlighted the economic impact that the virus is expected to have on the economies of South Asia and urged SAARC to help the member countries.
The regional leaders explained how they have taken various measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus through the population.
President Ashraf Ghani highlighted the vulnerability of Afghanistan as it shares a long border with Iran, one of the worst affected countries in the world. "We are in an unknown territory. Our major vulnerability is our openness. We have an open border with Iran, one of the major centres (of the COVID-19 virus) and the flow can not be stopped," said President Ghani suggesting the SAARC member countries create a task force and a framework of tele medicine to deal with the threat.
The Afghan leader said his government has shut schools and stopped public prayers and urged India to provide necessary satellite links so that students could carry out distant education from home.