A regional response to Covid-19 vital | Sunday Observer

A regional response to Covid-19 vital

21 February, 2021

SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, has taken a lot of flak recently as an organisation that had not lived up to its promise of greater South Asian integration. The region, home to more than one-fifth of the world’s population, has great economic potential. But intra-region trade and connectivity remains low by world standards and Indo-Pakistan tensions and several other factors have stymied its progress.

Sometimes, it takes an emergency for countries to realise that a collective response could be a better way of addressing problems. This was most potently demonstrated by the European Union, which ordered Covid-19 vaccines for all 27 countries as a single entity. While there have been some problems with this approach, it ultimately leaves no one behind. And with Covid-19, “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, according to the WHO.

The SAARC region has also realised that acting together is better than trying to tackle Covid-19 alone. SAARC leaders were the first to set up a video conference to talk about taming the pandemic way back in March last year. Since then, amid travel and other restrictions, SAARC countries have continued to cooperate vis-à-vis the pandemic. SAARC has already established a COVID Fund which can be used for the Covid mitigation efforts of the eight Member States. India has donated the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine manufactured at the Serum Institute of India under its Vaccine Maitri program to SAARC nations including Sri Lanka, which received 500,000 doses. This helped to kick-start the vaccination campaign here and the health authorities have started inoculating members of the public after giving the jab to the Security Forces and Health personnel.

Yet, more needs to be done. This was the general consensus reached at the latest video conference among SAARC health secretaries. Several plans were mooted at this session, but one stands out from the rest, along with the question “why was this not done all this time?”

During the conference call, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mooted an ambitious regional cooperation plan for the seamless movement of doctors, nurses and air ambulances between countries of SAARC and Indian Ocean Region (especially Mauritius and Seychelles) during medical emergencies.

Addressing health secretaries of 10 countries, Prime Minister Modi asked experts to consider creating a special visa scheme for doctors and nurses so that they can travel quickly within the region during health emergencies, on the request of the receiving country.

This is a timely idea. Sri Lanka and India have already become preferred destinations for medical tourists from other SAARC nations as well as from Mauritius and Seychelles. In fact, private hospitals in Sri Lanka already employ customer liaison executives who can speak the native languages used in the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles.

A regional air ambulance service should be funded by the eight nations, plus Mauritius and Seychelles, for the easy transport of patients. Perhaps each country can buy and maintain one air ambulance, plus several ambulance helicopters. In the alternative they can sub-contract companies that operate air ambulances.

This way, there will be at least 10 aircraft with ambulance facilities that can get airborne at a moment’s notice. A “SAARC Visa” scheme should be introduced for doctors and nurses so that they can visit any SAARC country during medical emergencies such as Covid-19. In fact, SAARC should eventually think about an EU-style visa-free movement facility for all its citizens that will truly impart a South Asian identity and a sense of belonging to all South Asians. Sri Lanka should take this proposal to two other regional groupings of which it is a member – BIMSTEC and IORA – to effectively increase the strength and reach of the air ambulance service.

Prime Minister Modi raised two other pertinent questions at the forum. “Can we create a regional platform for collating, compiling and studying data about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines among our populations? Can we similarly create a regional network for promoting technology-assisted epidemiology, for preventing future pandemics?”

Both Sri Lanka and India have done well in terms of responding to the pandemic. Sri Lanka was placed 10th in the prestigious Lowy Institute rankings of 100 countries in terms of responding to the Coronavirus crisis. This is actually a great honour to the whole of South Asia. India, which once experienced a huge death toll second only to the US, had seen a drastic decline in cases and deaths thanks to preventive measures.

Its ‘mask messaging’ has worked particularly well and now practically every Indian wears a mask, which is one of the main reasons for the drop in cases. Compare this situation with the US, for example, where there has been stiff civic opposition to masks. In Sri Lanka too, practically every citizen wears a mask.

It is time that SAARC countries initiate a common research facility on tropical diseases as well as Non Communicable Diseases, which are increasingly prevalent in South Asia. SAARC researchers should also concentrate on developing vaccines for malaria (which has been eliminated from Sri Lanka and the Maldives), dengue, HIV, cancer and also be ready for future pandemics as scientists estimate that hundreds more coronaviruses can jump from animals to humans. SAARC countries should also have more shared facilities for genetic research and genomic sequencing. SAARC should also have an exchange program for doctors and nurses.

The pandemic has taught us many lessons, but the biggest one is that we must respond to it on a regional and global scale. The virus does not respect whether countries are rich or poor. It is only through such a global response that we can hope to eliminate its threat.