Two days after he made the surprise offer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will convene a meeting of SAARC leaders on the coronavirus pandemic over a video conference on Sunday evening.
The conference, which will include leaders of seven countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the special adviser (Health) to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, will discuss the number of coronavirus cases in the subcontinent, different measures taken to stop the spread of the virus, and treatment methods.
“Coming together for common good,” tweeted MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, making the announcement of the video-conference, which will begin at 5p.m. IST on Sunday.
The SAARC leaders’ conference will come a day ahead of a similar “virtual conference” convened by France for members of the G-7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — which will be held on Monday.
On Friday, after Mr. Modi proposed that the “leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus”, which the leaders of most of the SAARC countries had welcomed, Pakistan’s government also put out a statement accepting the proposal.
“The threat of COVID-19 requires coordinated efforts at global and regional level. We have communicated that Special Advisor to Prime Minister on Health will be available to participate in the video conference of #SAARC member countries on the issue,” Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui tweeted, indicating that Mr. Khan would not join the meeting.
When asked if India was amenable to including an official from Pakistan rather than its Prime Minister or President, an MEA official said this is “not an issue”, as the aim of the conference is to discuss a “strong strategy” for the region to deal with the coronavirus, that has claimed nearly 5,000 lives globally in the last few weeks. “What is important is that all [SAARC] countries will be represented at the meeting,” the official said.
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The Ministry of External Affairs is coordinating India’s response to the virus through a “special cell” headed by Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi and assisted by four officers and other staff, who will brief the Prime Minister during the video-conference. The MEA says it has set up helplines in all its missions to respond to queries and help the Indian community around the world dealing with the pandemic.
The government has paid particular attention to helping SAARC member countries with their response as well, the MEA highlighted in a note released on Saturday. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had announced on February 7 that India was prepared to airlift stranded citizens from all neighbouring countries, and special Air India and Indian Air Force planes to China, Japan, Iran and Italy have airlifted more than 1,000 people, including about 30 from neighbouring countries including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
On Saturday, Indian High Commissioner to Male Sanjay Sudhir also handed over a consignment of medicine supplies for three months to the Maldives. Appreciating the gesture, Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid said, “This will be a tremendous help as we combat the COVID-19. One country alone cannot face this pandemic. Together, we shall prevail.”
Officials said Mr. Modi’s purpose in arranging the video-conference was to keep the citizens of South Asia “healthy”. “[PM Modi] had highlighted that SAARC leaders can together set an example to the world and contribute to a healthier planet”.
The PM’s video-conference will be one of the unique occasions in more than four years when Mr. Modi will take part in a SAARC event, since he declined to attend the summit in Islamabad in 2016. After the Uri attack in September 2016, other SAARC countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan had also pulled out of the summit in protest against cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. After the government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 with regard to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Pakistan had also boycotted India’s participation at SAARC meetings, and both Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers boycotted each other’s speeches at a SAARC meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last September.
However, in the last few months, many leaders in the neighbourhood have counselled both sides to resume their engagement with the grouping. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli had even offered to mediate between India and Pakistan in an effort to restart the South Asian engagement, which at present is limited to other groupings like BIMSTEC, which includes Thailand and Myanmar but doesn’t include Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives.