South Asia shows new spirit of collaboration to fight COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic

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Positions are marked for maintaining physical distance at a market in Mumbai, India. Photo: Rajanish Kakade/​AP/​Shutterstock
Positions are marked for maintaining physical distance at a market in Mumbai, India. Photo: Rajanish Kakade/​AP/​Shutterstock

The deadly COVID-19 pandemic is bringing together leaders of South Asian countries in a way rarely seen in recent years. 

A promising sign of potential regional cooperation occurred on March 15, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi organized a videoconference about the coronavirus pandemic with the eight-member countries of the only intergovernmental group spanning the entire region, the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

This was SAARC’s first high-level meeting since 2014. While not an official summit, leaders of seven countries participated and Pakistan was represented by its health minister.  The meeting was telecast live on YouTube and broadcast on television throughout the region.

At the meeting, India’s prime minister launched a COVID-19 emergency fund with an initial contribution of $10 million. The fund has since collected voluntary contributions of more than $8 million from most SAARC members. While the initial amounts are modest, the fact that countries in South Asia are joining forces, coordinating their responses, and pooling resources is hugely significant. 

The region’s countries now have an opportunity to come together to remove tariffs on medical devices, protective gear, disinfectants, and soap, and they have started to do so.

The national leaders also proposed collective ways to combat the pandemic. For instance, Afghanistan suggested that SAARC adopt a shared telemedicine framework to provide health care to remote areas.  Maldives called for closer cooperation among national health emergency agencies and a long-term economic recovery plan for the region.  Pakistan offered to hold a SAARC health ministers videoconference to enhance cooperation and proposed establishing a working group of national authorities to exchange information and data in real time. Sri Lanka reiterated the need to work together, create social awareness, and have one central depository to disseminate information. 

Senior health professionals of all SAARC countries met by videoconference on March 26, and agreed that India will share online training tools for emergency responders and set up an electronic disease surveillance platform to help neighboring countries trace and manage the coronavirus outbreaks. SAARC’s Disaster Management Centre, which is housed in the campus of the Gujarat Institute of Disaster Management in India, has also set up a COVID-19 website with daily updates about confirmed cases throughout South Asia and actions that each country is taking.

Countries are shoring up support and demonstrating solidarity. A few days ago, India sent 40,000 masks and other medical equipment to Italy, one of the hardest hit nations, as well as 30,000 masks and protective gear to Bangladesh. 

South Asians have long suffered from intraregional tariff and nontariff barriers that make it difficult to move goods and people across borders. Home to one-fourth of the world’s poorest people, the region has disproportionately high trade costs, poor logistics infrastructure, and inefficient trade facilitation.  Our benchmark report, A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia estimates that the trade within the region could be worth $67 billion rather than its recent value of $23 billion. South Asia also has significant constraints on its services trade, even though the services sector accounts for more than half of the economies in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The region’s countries now have an opportunity to come together to remove tariffs on medical devices, protective gear, disinfectants, and soap, and they have started to do so.  They must also act to avoid restrictive actions by importers and exporters that could reduce global supply and affect critical supply chains, especially tariffs on food and other necessities.

Short-term collaboration to fight the pandemic could bring longer-term benefits by strengthening regional institutions, improving regional infrastructure and connectivity.

This is a critical inflexion point for regional cooperation in South Asia. An increase in cooperation has the potential to produce significant economic gains, accelerate shared growth, and reduce poverty.

The crisis is an opportunity to put aside traditional concerns and take joint action. Short-term collaboration to fight the pandemic could bring longer-term benefits by strengthening regional institutions, improving regional infrastructure and connectivity , advancing trade policy, and developing cross-boundary solutions to shared issues.

South Asia has achieved significant progress through cooperation in the power sector, and that experience can be applied to special priority areas such as food security, critical logistics, and health services.   

The World Bank is a committed partner of regional cooperation in South Asia and stands ready to provide technical and financial assistance as the countries marshal regional resources to focus on the human toll of COVID-19. 

Authors

Cecile Fruman

Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

Mandakini Kaul

Senior Regional Cooperation Officer for South Asia

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