Uniting to combat COVID-19

The South Asian region could leverage its existing institutional framework under the umbrella of SAARC

Updated - September 23, 2020 12:40 am IST

Published - September 23, 2020 12:15 am IST

Closeup of Ruffled SAARC Flag, SAARC Flag Blowing in Wind

Closeup of Ruffled SAARC Flag, SAARC Flag Blowing in Wind

With the pandemic showing no signs of abating, growth prospects for the world’s fastest-growing region, South Asia, appear grim. In April, the World Bank predicted that growth in the region would be 1.8%-2.8% this year.

Governments in South Asian countries have responded in varying degrees to counter the health and economic crises.

Coronavirus | SAARC countries unite to combat COVID-19 infections

India resumed its economic activities on a limited scale following a strict lockdown imposed in late March and lasting through April. Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka did the same after an extended lockdown. Bhutan and the Maldives have managed to largely contain community transmission and avoid prolonged lockdowns due to a higher testing rate. This is consistent with the hypothesis that countries that have conducted more tests have been more successful in containing the pandemic. According to Worldometer, in South Asia, the Maldives has the highest number of tests per million population followed by Bhutan. Countries facing a surge in cases, such as India, could have flattened the curve by increasing the number of tests.

Low mortality

India has the second largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (over 55 lakh) after the U.S. Bangladesh has around 3.5 lakh cases. Surprisingly, unlike other regions, South Asian countries are experiencing a lower mortality rate despite having a higher infection rate. Many have suggested that this could be due to the region’s tropical climate, protection offered by a tuberculosis vaccine (BCG), exposure to malaria, and a weaker strain of the virus. However, epidemiological studies and the World Health Organization’s reviews have been sceptical about the hypotheses which leave out one plausible explanation — the concern over data reliability . Many have suggested that in a region that houses one-fourth of the global population and one-third of the global poor, many COVID-19 deaths might have gone unnoticed, unreported or even under-reported.

The efficacy of state responses

While India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives have unveiled stimulus packages, the rest are yet to announce any concrete support for their low income and lower-middle income population still suffering from the economic fallout of the crisis. In late March, India announced a $22.5 billion relief package to ensure food security and cash transfers to save the livelihoods of an estimated 800 million people living in poverty. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) slashed the repo and reverse repo rate to create liquidity for businesses. In early April, Bangladesh announced a stimulus package worth about $8 billion in addition to an earlier $595 million incentive package for export-oriented industries. In late March, Pakistan unveiled a comprehensive fiscal stimulus package of $6.76 billion. Its central bank also slashed the interest rate. In late April, the Maldives government mobilised a $161.8 million emergency fund. It also announced a short-term financing facility for the tourism industry. Sri Lanka signed an agreement with the RBI for a currency swap worth $400 million to support domestic financial stability. In late February, the Afghan government allocated about $25 million to fight COVID-19. In addition, a $100.4 million grant was approved by the World Bank in April to Afghanistan.

Also read | India extends $250 million in financial support to Maldives to overcome impact of COVID-19

Although countries like India and Bangladesh announced financial and material stimulus packages, distribution concerns remain unaddressed. For instance, the Open Market Sale in Bangladesh appears ineffective as there is no physical distancing and, in some instances, there is political tampering and poor governance. In India, the announcement of the lockdown gave citizens less than four hours to prepare. Hoarding of supplies caused a shortage in the market. The lockdown disrupted supply chains. It was a similar situation in Nepal and Pakistan.

A coordinated response mechanism

Since this crisis is likely to result in prolonged economic setbacks in South Asia, leaders of the region need to look beyond narrow geopolitical rivalry and come together to work towards a well-coordinated response mechanism. A SAARC COVID-19 fund was created following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to South Asian leaders, but governments are yet to decide on its modus operandi. The region could leverage its existing institutional framework under the umbrella of SAARC to effectively respond to the crisis. For instance, SAARC Food Banks could be activated to tackle the imminent regional food crisis, and the SAARC Finance Forum can be activated to formulate a regional economic policy response. If leaders of the region can’t rise to the occasion even when faced with a common problem that is claiming lives, putting millions out of jobs and crippling economies, when will they?

Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the international think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance with a presence in Dhaka, Delhi, Melbourne, Vienna, and Dubai. Email: munir.khasru@ipag.or

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