SAARC members should initiate a frequent exchange of epidemiological experts. Having distribute-centred expertise in the region which can mobilise quickly and help the entire region in a time of need would be highly beneficial and cost-efficient
The year 2020 started like any other, and nobody expected it would usher in profound changes around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented incidents that followed has turned the world into a site of great tragedy. The most vibrant and industrious cities in the world have become mere shadows of what they once were, with empty roads and deserted markets.
While the initial knee jerk response to Covid-19 was isolationist and self-centred, it was quickly followed by regional and international collaboration. What largely remained unchanged, however, were the relative resilience of the developed economies, and the evident fragilities of lesser developed countries.
Closing of borders, disrupted supply chains and limited economic activities hit the most impoverished countries the hardest with a rapid increase in unemployment, debt burden, food insecurity and a larger proportion of the population falling below the poverty line. This raised several questions, including has our world become a global village or was it just a delusion? Why did globalisation not provide solace during the pandemic? Why did countries fail to adopt a unified strategy while dealing with the crisis?
On one side, the pandemic proved to be highly devastating; it has also taught us several lessons. Firstly, the governments across the globe need to set their priorities right, by moving away from spending heavily on war weapons and establishing strong health and education sectors. There should be a well-structured and synchronised strategy across the region on handling the crisis.
The regional organisations should put place a clear public outreach plan for better awareness and information sharing through social media. Looking at the regional organisations during the pandemic, the role of ASEAN is splendid as they held video conferences and establish connections even beyond the region with China, South Korea and Japan to establish the well-coordinated strategy. Similarly, the European Union (EU) established "Team Europe" package of €36 billion to address the devastating effects of Covid-19 crisis in the region.
In contrast, we find an opposite scenario in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region. The initial cases of the virus were detected in South Asia much later than in other regions of the world. However, due to unpreparedness, ambiguous policies, and careless attitude of people in following the Standard operating procedures (SOPs), the situation gained momentum and virus spread at an exponential rate.
The three most affected countries in South Asia are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Several factors contributed in widespread of infection and mortality rate, i.e. slow response in initiating necessary measures against Covid-19, deficiency of testing kits, population density and inability of the government to ensure social distancing, lack of proper screening and quarantine facilities at the airports and border.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bhutan performed better in tackling the pandemic and taken appropriate steps, e.g. imposing lockdowns, closing borders and social distancing.
In the SAARC region, health facilities were insufficient, and health infrastructure was underdeveloped as compared to need. The World Bank has warned that South Asia may experience its worst economic performance in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic.
It is worth noting that the SAARC countries have established a Covid-19 emergency fund and made voluntary contributions of around $18.5 million. SAARC countries have also proposed some collective measures in the health sector and information dissemination to combat the virus. However, the pace of implementation of many of the proposed initiatives is sluggish and lacks direction.
This is high time that SAARC leaders should sit together and formulate a strategy to combat this challenging situation. The daily wage earners, small businesses, women, particularly holding informal jobs, have been hit hardest.
In the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, establishing a "Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU)" in the region is necessary. The unit should be capable of mobilising resources in the emergency and allocate funds depending on a joint assessment of needs by the members. It is vital to create a link between short term recovery plans and long-term development goals.
SAARC members should initiate a frequent exchange of epidemiological experts. Having distribute-centred expertise in the region which can mobilise quickly and help the entire region in a time of need would be highly beneficial and cost-efficient. There is a need to devise a strategy through an integrated process combining experts from the relevant areas.
Another challenge faced during this pandemic was sudden closure of borders. Improved information sharing, border control co-operation, early warning system across the region would be useful.
With the consent member countries, SAARC should establish a regional disease control organisation. Local organisations like Pakistan's National Institute of Health (NIH), National Center for Disease Control Institute of India (NCDC), Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research of Bangladesh (IDECR), Epidemiology and Disease Control Division of Nepal (EDCD), Royal Centre for Disease Control of Bhutan (RCDC) and the Epidemiology Unit of Sri Lanka should join hands together and establish a regional health centre. Regional vaccination co-operation program and health awareness campaigns can also be launched under this program.
There is a need to enhance the connectivity within the region particularly travel facilities, visa restrictions and infrastructure development. This will also help in ensuring the food security, promoting trade, tourism and supply of medicines and other health-related equipment, particularly during outbreaks.
The social protection, e.g. better financial services, can help people to transfer money to vulnerable and poor people, particularly in an informal economy or where access to banks and financial institutions is limited. The regional development bank, in collaboration with the national banks, should develop a set of tools and policies to support weaker economies and create a special fund for poor people. South Asian countries can adapt Bangladesh's model of micro-financing at a regional level.
These initiatives will contribute to preparing the region for disaster management, disease prevention in future and ultimately leading to sustainable economic development and inclusive growth of South Asia.
Noorulain Hanif is an Economist and a Chevening Scholar. She has worked as a Research and Policy Specialist at the Directorate General of Trade Policy (DGTP), Ministry of Commerce, Islamabad. She has also experience working with various other public and private sector think tanks.