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EFSAS Commentary

Misplaced and unwarranted political remarks show Pakistan in a very poor light during SAARC COVID-19 video conference


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bringing to the fore the well honed leadership skills he is widely acknowledged to posses, took the initiative in calling for and organizing a video conference on 15 March of the leaders of the member nations of the regional grouping, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to work out a coordinated response to Corona virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In fact, Modi pre-empted what United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for days later on 19 March, a harmonized response to the deadly virus. Guterres said, “If we let the virus spread like wildfire – especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world – it would kill millions of people. Global solidarity is not only a moral imperative, it is in everyone's interests. We need to immediately move away from a situation where each country is undertaking its own health strategies to one that ensures, in full transparency, a coordinated global response, including helping countries that are less prepared to tackle the crisis”.

The response to Modi’s initiative from the other South Asian countries that constitute the highly physically integrated and porous region was prompt, positive, serious and welcoming. The only exception was Pakistan, whose confirmation of participation was characteristically tardy, level of participation abysmally low, and contentions at the video conference irresponsibly politicized and divisive. Whereas all other countries were represented at the video conference by the head of the State or government, Pakistan sent a junior minister to field for Prime Minister Imran Khan, who apparently had something more important than the most serious medical emergency of our times to deal with.

The Pakistan government’s callousness towards its own citizens in the face of the COVID-19 crisis had been demonstrated months ago, when despite increasing distress calls it had refused to evacuate its citizens stranded in Wuhan, China, where the disease first broke out and reached epidemic levels. Claiming some vague larger interest, Pakistan not only left its citizens to face the brunt of the disease in Wuhan at a time when almost all other countries were flying out their citizens on a war footing, but also turned down an Indian offer to evacuate Pakistani students from the Chinese city along with Indian nationals. Among those eventually evacuated from Wuhan in Indian aircraft were citizens of other SAARC nations Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, but not Pakistan.

The imperative for South Asia to evolve a coordinated response to COVID-19 stemmed from the ground realities prevailing in the region. Home to one-fifth of the world’s population, South Asia is among the economically poorer regions of the world. Available health facilities are consequently limited, implying that the region would struggle to deal with a full-blown pandemic. The timing of Modi’s urgent call for engagement and synergy in handling the crisis, therefore, reflected foresight. At the time the video conference was held, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the region was less than 200, and the number of deaths from the disease not even a handful. Recognition that these numbers could surge rapidly because of the high population density in the region, the borders that countries such as India and Nepal share with China, the open borders between Nepal, Bhutan and India, the highly porous nature of the India - Bangladesh border on the east and the borders between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the heavily COVID-19 affected Iran on the west, the large number of migrant workers from the region working in the Middle-East and from Bangladesh in Italy, another severely affected country, meant that urgent steps needed to be taken.

India opted to assume its leadership role as the largest and most developed SAARC member despite it having developed serious misgivings in recent years over the future prospects of a SAARC that Pakistan appeared hell-bent on sabotaging. It was the only SAARC member that refused to join the India-launched South Asia satellite, as also to ratify SAARC connectivity agreements. Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism against India (and Afghanistan), and the frequent terrorist attacks that were launched in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) from Pakistani soil had, meanwhile, severely tested the patience of the Indian government, and eventually breached it after the Uri attack of September 2016. An indignant India had refused to conduct business as usual with Pakistan thereafter, and this had put the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November that year in a limbo. Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives had also pulled out of the summit in solidarity with India’s position.   

India’s frustration with Pakistan’s constant hindering of the progress of SAARC had led it over the last few years to promote and project the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), another regional grouping, at the expense of the SAARC. As an east-looking group, BIMSTEC did not include Pakistan. Modi’s reversion to the SAARC platform for the COVID-19 initiative, therefore, surprised some but pleased many others. Experts across South Asia hailed the move as the first step towards revival of the SAARC. After all, when it was formed in 1985, SAARC had set high ideals and aims for the holistic development of the region, a promise most members of the grouping had not totally given up on.

The only SAARC member that was taken aback by Modi’s unexpected step was Pakistan. It found itself in a quandary. When Modi’s proposal for the video conference was received by Pakistan, it spent considerably more time than any other SAARC nation to decide on its participation. It had to contend with factors such as the desirability of participating in an India – mooted SAARC video conference in a situation in which India had steadfastly refused to participate in the long-stalled Islamabad summit of the SAARC. Further, PM Imran Khan has since August last year been wailing from every rooftop that he could possibly climb that he would not engage with India till such time that it reversed its 5 August 2019 decisions on J&K. Accepting Modi’s proposal would expose Khan to the criticism that his commitment to the J&K cause was in reality confined to verbalizing from rooftops, and that his threats and proclamations were more form than substance that were easily undone.

However, not accepting had equally serious pitfalls, including sending the impression to Pakistanis that their government was not serious about their welfare even in the midst of a deadly serious health crisis. To the international community, the message that Pakistan was the bull-headed party that did not want to engage with a willing and keen India even on a matter that had grave humanitarian implications for Pakistan’s own people would go out loud and clear.

Confusion and the inability to come up with a clear-headed answer got the better of Pakistan. It went neither this way nor that by keeping PM Khan out of the video conference but nominating the junior minister for health, who seemed too overwhelmed by the occasion to make a meaningful contribution. This decision showed Pakistan in a very poor light in the eyes of the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the other SAARC members that participated in the video conference.

Although it doubtlessly had been dictated by the Pakistani military establishment, the misplaced political remarks that the Pakistani junior health minister made at the video conference on COVID-19, the most inappropriate forum for such issues, also served to take the country’s image several notches lower among its SAARC co-members and the rest of the international community. In the midst of PM Modi announcing a COVID-19 Emergency Fund with an initial commitment of $10 million from India and proposing a disease surveillance portal as well as training of ‘medical response teams’ for SAARC countries, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani mooting the creation of a common framework in the region for telemedicine, and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasizing on the need for the deliberations on COVID-19 to continue at the ministerial level as well as among health experts, and proposing cooperation among SAARC countries in the areas of testing, sharing strategies of information dissemination, and addressing the lacunae in medical infrastructure, the out of place Pakistani representative chose to make a political point on J&K.

Zafar Mirza, Pakistan’s State Minister of Health, said during the video conference, “It is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir. In view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown in the territory must be lifted immediately. Opening up communications and movement will facilitate the dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies, and enable containment and relief efforts to proceed unimpeded”. This uncalled for statement pertaining entirely to a region of a foreign country from a country that has had an avowed disinclination to assist its own citizens stranded in COVID-19 hotspots came across as crass, crude and cringe worthy. In effect, in a crisis situation that is screaming for unity and synchronization, the best that Pakistan could contribute at the SAARC video conference were the seeds of division and discord.

Although Pakistan’s target may have been India, its huge faux pas only served to ensure that Pakistan’s image and standing, especially among the other SAARC countries, took a massive beating. Pakistan’s glaring pettiness drove home among the other SAARC members that Pakistan actually had little interest in regional cooperation. The fallibility of attempting to deal in a civilized manner, in accordance with diplomatic norms and etiquettes, with a country with values as skewed as Pakistan’s also came to the fore.

Above all, the SAARC leaders participating in the video conference may find themselves, based on the Pakistani representative’s conduct, more convinced that there was, indeed, merit in the contention that a SAARC minus Pakistan was the best way forward for the survival and success of the grouping.