Will the coronavirus pandemic revive SAARC?There is an opportunity for the crisis to bring member countries closer together, and into deeper economic integration.
Crises are the best times for cooperation. The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, thus, provided a reason for the leaders of member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to come together for a video conference on March 15. The call to work through SAARC, which for all practical purposes has been in hibernation since its 18th summit in 2014, in these testing times came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Friday. The leaders of the seven other member nations—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—responded positively to his call. Yet again, even in the video conference organised specifically to discuss the unprecedented humanitarian crisis of Covid-19, Pakistan did not participate at the head-of-government level, which, sadly, is an ominous signal to reinitiate full-fledged cooperation among the member states.
Beginning from the 1981 Colombo meeting of the foreign ministers of the seven South Asian countries Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—SAARC completes 39 years of existence this year. But achievements and accomplishments of the regional bloc vis-a-vis objectives of 'promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the region' as enshrined in its Charter remain dismal, to say the least.
The main stumbling block in the path of regional economic integration through SAARC has been historical tensions between India and Pakistan. The 19th SAARC Summit, scheduled for 2016 in Islamabad, has so far taken not place due to Indian's refusal to send its delegation to Pakistan amidst increased diplomatic differences—particularly since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi six years ago.
Another reason for the suboptimal progress of SAARC, beyond and above the aforesaid tension, is India’s reluctance to present the grouping as a common regional voice against her historical hegemony; India singly thought to represent the needs and aspirations of the entire region, mainly in international forums. As mentioned by India's foreign secretary J N Dixit in his book My South Block Years: Memoirs of a Foreign Secretary, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was largely unenthusiastic to take forward the SAARC process in its formative days in apprehension that India's role as the regional superpower could be taken over by the regional organisation, if it worked effectively.
During the last half-decade, the foreign policy of India's BJP government has given priorities in working with the regional trading blocs in which Pakistan is not a participant. Out of SAARC itself, it decided to carve out the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) motor vehicle initiative and invested its substantial diplomatic energy and resources to reinvigorate BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Despite hiccups, India is experimenting with options to be part of a trade deal in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—a club of fifteen countries, mainly Southeast Asian, which includes China and Japan.
Apart from short term engagement, say, until the Covid-19 crisis is over, the avenues to continue and sustain the regional engagement and cooperation reinitiated now must be explored. The agenda of enhanced trade and increased level of the economic integration of the region can be pushed forward despite political and strategic differences among the countries. There are several examples in the world that trade and people-to-people interactions, particularly among the neighbouring countries, can continue despite differences and even hostilities. The economic exchanges between France and Germany in the post-World War II era can serve as an example for SAARC.
The Covid-19 crisis has also forced us to realise that calamities, natural disasters and pandemics do not recognise man-made borders and political differences—however high or deep they may be. This is particularly apparent since borders among the South Asian countries remain highly porous despite the barricades that may have served the political objectives of the rulers, but often defied by the people on either side of the fences.
As a matter of fact, regardless of whether the pandemic occurred or not, any narrative of cooperation beyond regional trade and economics is an utter illusion. The Covid-19 crisis will also soon boil down to a number of serious economic implications that are unique to the economies of this region, in addition to global trends. First, South Asia is the largest originating hub of the migrant workers and recipient of the largest amount of workers' remittances. The economic crisis that looms large in the host countries in all likelihood will soon render the majority of these workers redundant. This will immediately deplete the foreign currency inflow into the South Asian economies. In the medium term, upon their return to home countries, the problem of unemployment would be exacerbated.
Second, as the production, demand and supply of goods are universally impacted, the international trade from the region will become one of the first victims of the crisis. Third, fast depletion of foreign exchange reserves in these relatively poor South Asian economies might pose serious constraint in ensuring smooth supply—of mainly fuel, medicines and expensive capital goods which these countries entirely depend on.
In such an increasingly dire scenario, the idea of reviving the SAARC framework at present is certainly a welcome sign. It is symbolically important to be initiated by Indian Prime Minister Modi, who so far was generally seen willing to advance his diplomacy without much emphasis on the SAARC apparatus. His proposal to set up a Covid-19 crisis fund with an Indian contribution of $10 million and the instant willingness of leaders from other member countries to mobilise the regional supply chains and transportation networks to meet the daily needs of one-fourth of the global population are certainly much-needed initiatives. If SAARC were to be truly revived, however, it is equally important to work through largely dormant institutional arrangements like SAARC Development Fund, SAARC Disaster Management Centre and SAARC Human Resources Development Centre.
South Asia is one of the largest markets, which developed economies are desperately keen to capture but we ourselves have failed to recognise and utilise. SAARC’s share of intra-regional trade is just at 5 percent of the total trade of the region today. It has only grown by a pathetic 2 percent since 1990 whereas many new regional trading blocs have far surpassed the 30 percent mark. The current challenges put by Covid-19 should, therefore, serve to unleash the regional potential and also make SAARC a catalyst for wider regional economic integration.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 27, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 210 countries and infected more than 5,684,795 people with 352,225 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 150,793 with 4,344 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.
What do you think?
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