Kathmandu: On March 15, 2020, nine days before Nepal went on lockdown mode to contain the spread of Covid-19, a landmark announcement was made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which promised joint efforts in coordinating support and assistance to help save people of all South Asian countries from the deadly pandemic.
Modi hosted the virtual SAARC conference which was attended by the heads of states and governments of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries.
Nepal’s then Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Zafar Mirza, special adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, had attended the conference.
The tangible outcome was the announcement of the SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund—to which Nepal announced to contribute one million US dollars (USD). Bangladesh pledged 1.5 million USD, Maldives two million USD, Afghanistan one million USD, Bhutan one million USD, and Sri Lanka five million USD. India was the biggest contributor to that Fund with the pledge of 10 million USD.
It was a rare occasion where all SAARC leaders had agreed to collectively work for a cause – fighting the pandemic.
Back then the initiative was seen as a landmark development toward the possible revival of SAARC—the regional organization created in December, 1985 to ‘promote welfare of South Asians’, among others, but which, since 2014, has almost become defunct largely due to the perennial tensions between the two of the South Asian juggernauts—India and Pakistan.
Nearly one and half years after that major announcement, all the South Asian countries have terrible Covid fatality and infection rates—of course with the exception of Bhutan—to show. Nepal’s Covid fatality rate has crossed the 10,000 mark, India has lost nearly half a million of its citizens to the deadly pandemic, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan—all the countries have sad tales of deaths, sufferings, economic slowdown, loss of employment and so on.
Since May, 2020, several virtual meetings have been held at the SAARC ministerial level—among finance ministers, education ministers, foreign secretaries with notable exception of a meeting among the SAARC health ministers.
Stakeholders are unaware of the development, progress, mobilization and utilization of SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund.
“The Fund was announced and that was that. Individual countries may have played their roles in their own way. But the Secretariat has no knowledge of any progress on Covid-19 Fund. The Secretariat does not coordinate and oversees that fund,” said the office of SAARC Secretariat which is based in Kathmandu.
Could the vaccine donation from India and other assistance coming from SAARC countries have come through the SAARC Fund?
Officials at the Health Ministry and Foreign Ministry expressed unawareness about the matter. “Perhaps. But we don’t know. The assistance we are receiving may have been provided on a bilateral basis,” said an official at the Foreign Ministry requesting not to be named.
“The understanding was to help each other through the Fund. But an institutional mechanism to collect the fund and to spend from it was not created,” added the foreign ministry official. “So, nothing concrete can be said about the progress.”
“We have no actual data to show which country helped which one through the Fund or whether the help Nepal is receiving from SAARC countries including India is through the SAARC Fund,” rejoined the official at the Ministry of Health.
Arjun Bahadur Thapa was the Secretary General of SAARC from 2014 to 2017. He believes that as the chair of SAARC, Nepal should have taken the initiative to call that virtual conference instead of India. “Nepal is the SAARC chair. Nepal should have taken the initiative. But Nepal failed to play that role,” he said. “As a PM, K P Oli should have taken the lead at that time.”
“If Nepal had taken the initiative, if the Secretary General of SAARC had coordinated the process, and if the member states had listened to his proposal, something positive would have come out of it,” he added.
Thapa also thinks that the said Fund could have been put under the command of the Secretary General. Pakistan had proposed this but India did not agree to it. “Pakistan had proposed putting the Emergency Fund under the SAARC Secretary General but India declined to accept it,” Thapa explained.
Thapa sees the non-realization of the Emergency Fund as a missed opportunity for SAARC as well as its largest member state India to improve their image. “If some tangible efforts had been made by SAARC to materialize the Fund for Covid containment, it would have sent the message that SAARC is getting back on its feet,” he said. “When the Fund was announced it had created that impression too.”
“And if India had given momentum to that initiative, it would be seen as a benign power ready to help the smaller neighbors during the times of need,” he further said.
He, however, added that India itself became the hardest-hit nation by the pandemic in the region.
As a result of all this, one and half years after the announcement of Covid Emergency Fund, none of the member countries seems to have been able to benefit from that initiative.