Need for collective strategic action by SAARC to survive pandemic

The legitimacy of a regional organization like SAARC and others alike will be uncertain if strategic measures and procedures to control COVID-19 do not work in South Asia, writes   Maj. Gen Binoj Basnyat (retd)  for South Asia Monitor

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As societies around the world confront an unprecedented global health crisis with the rapid spread of coronovirus pandemic, the first priority of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) governments should be promoting health and safety in the region. The consequences are multifold with complex socio-political and socio-economic issues to be settled collectively. That is what geography has dictated underlining the fact that the virus and its impact have no borders.

The video interaction of SAARC leaders initiated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did provide an insight into every nation’s internal preparedness but the governments are clearly in search of a model to deal with the pandemic. What came out from the deliberation was the need to formulate models for a collaborated and collective action plan mandated by charters like crisis, disaster and emergency management while maintaining regional security.

As South Asia deals with this public health crisis, it is becoming apparent that this pandemic is expected to have a lasting economic and geopolitical implication. The Belt and Road Initiative under the Chinese investment is at risk in the region so is the peace process of Afghanistan. The domestic legitimacy of political leaders will also be questioned as the impact is multi-fold. 

As the chairperson of SAARC, Nepalese PM K.P. Sharma Oli could have used the opportunity to propose regional procedures to mitigate both direct and indirect effects and could have communicated Nepal’s strategy in handling the crisis. Though, it is still not late. Nepal like other nations provided information on the measures being taken in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than discuss strategic opportunities. The follow-up meeting of SAARC with trade officials for intra-regional trade to offset the huge economic cost was not attended by Pakistan.

On April 10, a repeated ceasefire violation by Pakistan drew retaliation from the Indian army with precision targeting of gun areas, terrorists launch pads and ammunition dump in Keran sector along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

The legitimacy of a regional organization like SAARC and others alike will be uncertain if strategic measures and procedures to control COVID-19 do not work in South Asia.

Modi brought together the entire country by suggesting the lighting of the lamps and thanking and supporting the officials involved in controlling the virus. This helped in two ways - controlling COVID-19 and ensuring national unity – which could lead to political gains.

In Nepal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) could be the coordinating body to work with the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP), Ministry of Supply and Commerce for taking preventive measures and also to plan for post pandemic. Second, committees should be formed and concerned ministries should be brought on board for supplying basic essentials amongst all the SAARC nations. Third, the financial impact of COVID-19 on South Asians should be assessed. Fourth, SAARC Secretariat should establish sub-groups at capitals of member states for carrying out effective and collective coordination efforts in an effort to contain the pandemic.

The lack of active role of the SAARC Secretariat and the modalities to use more than US$ 22.5 million funds generated by nation states is already in doubt. Politicians and political parties in South Asian nations want a crisis to be handled only or to be the government’s responsibility. This was the same when Nepal was a unitary state. The three-tier government is only looking for authority but refrains from being accountable. It is time that all either holding or not bearing public chair take an equal share. It will raise a question of the suitability of the federal system of governance in Nepal and the legitimacy of democratic practice. We have to work together and stand together emphasizing a platform that already exists in SAARC.

The reaction of SAARC nations to the pandemic should not overlook the political, economic, social and cultural establishment of collective action, which seems to be wearing away.  SAARC nations together will survive the COVID-19 crisis if they give power to everyone to propel instead of taking central decisions, mounting up resources, scrutiny and escalating coercion.

A collective effort and Nepal as a chair should create an environment for SAARC nations to work hand in hand to protect and safeguard all South Asians with a theme “Share capacity to address limitation for all”.

(The writer is a retired Nepalese Army major general and a political and security analyst)

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