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EFSAS Commentary

Undesirable and avoidable fresh security challenges may detract from the complex battle that South Asia is waging against COVID-19


The complexities and challenges that the world is grappling with in its fight against the Corona virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic are widespread and divisive. The weak response of the global international architecture that had been set up decades ago to deal with international crises have been compounded by the lies, accusations, and blame games between the individual nations, especially the powerful and prominent ones, that had joined forces to set up the architecture in the first place. Despite such an adverse international milieu in which each country is by and large fending for itself, the South Asian region, which comprises just 4 percent of the world’s total land area but is a densely-packed home to over a quarter of the world’s population, is waging a tough battle against the invisible enemy with a certain degree of togetherness and cooperation. Although a hesitant joiner, Pakistan too eventually did come on board and contributed to the India-initiated South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) COVID-19 fund. However, alarming recent reports that have exposed the Pakistani military establishment’s plans to use the relative absence of international scrutiny to escalate its terrorist infrastructure and create fresh terrorist assets have raised serious questions about the genuineness of Pakistan’s commitment to a regional outlook towards tackling COVID-19.   

The United Nations (UN) has been consigned to the margins in the international order’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and has come out looking jaded and toothless in light of the fact that the nation from which the COVID-19 virus is near-universally acknowledged to have originated, China, has prevented the UN Security Council (UNSC) from even discussing the pandemic. China fears that its untruths and suppression of facts aimed at circumventing economic repercussions in the initial stage of the outbreak, which experts widely concur contributed in no small measure to the COVID-19 crisis graduating into a pandemic, would come tumbling out of the closet in any such meeting. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, was alerted by Taiwan as early as in December last year of the novel Corona virus outbreak in Wuhan province of China, as well as its human-to-human transmission, but the WHO chose to ignore its warnings and rely solely on the disinformation handed out by the Chinese authorities. Not to be left behind, the United States (US), through an abrupt announcement by its mercurial President Donald Trump on 15 April, suspended its share of funding for the WHO at a critical juncture at which the organization’s expertise is most acutely required. The impact of this US decision on the WHO’s activities in South Asia, especially those related to COVID-19, will be known in time.

For the present though, to the surprise of many, South Asia has been fairly successful in containing COVID-19 and limiting its spread. With its huge and densely populated cities, teeming slums and widespread poverty, South Asia was viewed as a sitting target for Corona virus, with potentially millions of deaths. Such doomsday scenarios have been kept at bay by an effective combination of early imposition of travel restrictions; screening of all incoming flyers followed by quarantine of those showing symptoms or arriving from heavily affected countries; and putting in place strict lockdowns despite their implementation on the ground posing serious challenges on account of the sheer numbers involved as well as the large numbers of migrant workers rendered and stuck jobless in cities, desperate to get back to their villages of origin.

The regional leadership assumed by India very early on in the crisis also played an important role. This notably manifested itself in the evacuation of nationals of other SAARC countries along with Indians stuck in COVID-19 hotspots in China, Europe and other parts, and provision of testing facilities, critical medicines and medical and protective equipment to neighbouring SAARC countries, among other things. Each with its own unique set of circumstances to deal with, most SAARC countries nevertheless looked closely at India, and the steps it was taking to deal with the crisis, prior to formulating their own strategies.

The strategy adopted by India has at various stages been commended by the WHO and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), among others. In a statement released on 14 March, the WHO said, The WHO commends India’s timely and tough actions to stop COVID-19. It may be early to talk about the results in numbers. About a six-week nationwide lockdown to facilitate effective physical distancing, coupled with expansion of core public health measures such as detection, isolation and tracing contact of COVID-19 positive people would go a long way in arresting the virus spread. Despite huge and multiple challenges, India has been demonstrating unwavering commitment in its fight against the pandemic. In these testing times, the action lies as much with the communities as with the authorities and the health workforce. It is indeed time for each and every one to contribute their best and together beat the virus”. The following day, a senior IMF representative observed that, “The Indian government has prioritised things very well. Health is the first priority, containment measures have been put in place. The Indian government has also provided direct support to weaker sections. I commend the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) for putting liquidity measures in place”.

At a time when China, ostensibly to help the international community but in reality to make a quick buck by capitalizing on adversity, has been shipping plane loads of substandard medical supplies to the worst hit countries, the humanitarian side of India’s response has been applauded internationally. The Netherlands, for example, was confounded to find that the 600,000 face masks it had ordered and received from China on 21 March did not fit, and that their filters did not work as intended even though they had a quality certificate. The Dutch government informed in a statement that, “The rest of the shipment was immediately put on hold and has not been distributed. Now it has been decided not to use any of this shipment”. The Spanish government encountered similar problems with testing kits ordered from a Chinese company. It announced it had bought hundreds of thousands of tests to combat the virus, but revealed in the following days that nearly 60,000 could not accurately determine if a patient had the virus. Turkey also announced that it had found that some testing kits ordered from Chinese companies were not sufficiently accurate.

India has taken a rather empathetic view of the crisis and has begun providing a whopping 85 million hydroxychloroquine tablets and 500 million paracetamol tablets to a total of 108 countries. It had initially banned the export of these drugs, but reversed that decision as soon as it became apparent that the ban was out of place given the larger humanitarian challenge at hand. An Indian official, meanwhile, said that, “The emphasis has been on clearing consignments to those friendly countries first which are badly affected by the virus”. Little wonder then that world leaders including those of the US, Brazil and Israel, to name a few, spoke highly of India’s selflessness in this time of acute crisis.

The pro-active strategy adopted by India and the rest of South Asia in tackling COVID-19 has, at least till now, yielded good results on the ground. The total number of COVID-19 positive cases in South Asia is relatively low when compared to the close to a million reported in Europe and about 700,000 in the US as of April 15. The whole of South Asia reported slightly over 22,000 cases till that day, with India and Pakistan dominating the tally. The total number of deaths due to COVID-19 in South Asia is still being counted in the hundreds, whereas the toll in the region’s more developed western counterparts is in the tens of thousands. Overall, the total number of COVID-19 cases across the world on 15 April stood at an overwhelming 2,178,848, and the number of deaths at a humbling 145,359. The figures for South Asia are mellow in comparison.

Despite this, South Asia must guard against any complacency in the coming weeks and months as the underlying conditions for a rapid spread of the virus still exist in this highly populous region. If the progression of the disease is not kept under check, the ultimate fatalities due to the Corona virus in South Asia may dwarf anything likely to be seen in China, the US, Italy, Spain, Iran, or anywhere else in the world.

Irresponsible behaviour by any one country in the region could have a cascading effect on the whole of South Asia and in turn on the rest of the world as it seeks to come to terms with COVID-19. That is why reports that appeared in the media this week of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in connivance with the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), having formed two new terrorist groups, ‘The Resistance Front’ (TRF) and ‘Tehreek-i-Milat-i-Islami’ (TMI), for the Kashmir valley need to be taken seriously. TRF first came to the notice of Indian security agencies in March this year, when the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police arrested four terrorists from Sopore district. Subsequently, TRF commander Abu Anas released an audio statement calling upon Muslims to join the jihad against India. The TMI’s leader Nayeem Firdous also issued an audio statement in which he urged all militant groups operating in Kashmir to unite. Indian security officials have been quoted as saying that these two groups were planning to target politicians and security personnel in J&K. They also revealed that about 450 trained terrorists were ready to infiltrate into Kashmir from Pakistan. About 350 of them were Pakistani nationals.

India has demonstrated in recent years that it would adopt a pro-active and aggressive attitude towards any Pakistani attempt to promote terrorism in J&K. Possibly because of the build-up of terrorists waiting to be inducted into J&K in the spring thaw, India targeted Pakistani terrorist launch pads, gun positions and an ammunition dump across the Line of Control with Bofors artillery guns. No longer reticent, the Indian Army on 10 April raised the stakes by releasing aerial drone footage showing multiple explosions, including the Pakistani Army ammunition dump being hit.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in a televised address to the nation on 12 April averred that he would appeal to world leaders, financial institutions and the United Nations to “...launch an initiative that will give debt relief to developing countries to combat the Corona virus”. Khan added, “Apart from containing the virus and dealing with the economic crisis, our biggest worry now is the people dying of hunger. The dilemma on one side is stopping the people dying from the virus and on the other hand, preventing deaths from hunger as a result of the lockdown. We do not have the money to spend on the already-overstretched health services and secondly to stop the people from dying of hunger”.

The question being asked by many in response to Khan’s address is: how come does the military establishment have a surplus of resources of such magnitude that it can afford to set up and arm entire new terrorist groups with it, while Khan, the Prime Minister, requires an international debt waiver to run his country’s health services and to prevent people from starving to death?

Such policies are not only detrimental to Pakistan's own fight against COVID-19, but will prove destructive to the collective efforts of the region of South Asia as whole in tackling COVID-19.