BIMSTEC Should Address the Common COVID19 Crises: Preparatory Mechanisms need to be put in Place
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

As the numbers of confirmed cases affected by Corona virus keeps rising in India and elsewhere, the fears and apprehensions surrounding it have multiplied over the past few weeks. While the dissemination of information through health and medical sectors have been helpful and assuring too, more than ever, the world is faced once again with the hard truth that in this interconnected world, diseases clearly have no respect for boundaries and borders. As the first hundred cases were reported from Wuhan in China in mid-January, given the present globalised lifestyle it was only on a matter of weeks that it had spread and affected a very large number across the globe. As per latest World Health Organization (WHO) more than 132,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported from 123 countries and territories, including 5000 loss of lives (16 March 2020). Given the quick spread and the fatalities that were reported immediately after the world awoke to this first case from Wuhan, the WHO on 11 March 2020 had to announce this as a pandemic.

In todays’ world that offers a glut of information, through media both new and traditional, there was both a need to not allow panic to set in as well as ensure that correct information was being disseminated. As the governments across are coping to create and setting up adequate response mechanism along the way, it is apparent that collaborative efforts to address the issue would have been a force multiplier. As most governments, after the initial hesitant attempts, have sprung into formulating definite plans and systems are being implemented to deal with the crises, the regional efforts to tackle this, have been rather askance.

The governments had two immediate priorities, one to ensure that medical services were available for those affected and screening the suspected individual, while ensuring adequate safety protocols are in place and being adhered to. Not only medical services were urgently required but also to keep the un-infected citizens safe, with precautionary measures in place and undertaking immediate and efficient measures to ensure against its spread became a priority.

It was only on 13 March, 2020, given the heightened state of crises that that PM Modi twitted about SAARC coming forward to fight the immediate threat together. Modi proposed the creating of a COVID-19 emergency fund, possibly based on voluntary contributions from all the member countries. Amongst other useful suggestions, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed common framework for tele-medicine to combat this epidemic. And it was rightly pointed out, by Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that there was a need to formulate mechanism for the SAARC economies to address the problems posed by coronavirus. His proposal for setting up of SAARC ministerial-level group to deal with issues related to coronavirus was also very well received.

If SAARC which has been rather stagnant can propose to collaborate, one wonders why other more promising regional organisations like BIMSTEC in this region has remained silent and inactive? Indeed Public Health is a core sector in BIMSTEC’s initial scope of commitments and the nodal state Thailand for this, is not isolated from the spread of COVID-19. Thailand has been dealing with the third highest reported cases after China and Singapore and recently reported the highest number of cases in a single day. Thailand remaining at second phase for local transmission had initiated several precautionary measure, including disallowing the MS Westerdam cruise ship, from docking in Thailand. There was no doubt about the gravity of the situation.

While numbers affected and reported fatalities are on rise, the rate of those being affected by COVID-19 seems to suggest a very slow decline, but the crises remain far from being over. For most governments, the initial response was about bringing back home nationals from China and subsequently from other affected regions. In fact, those aboard ship liners have been struggling with the onset of this sudden crises and inability to come ashore has not only made then more vulnerable to the virus but also limited access to outside world has aggravated the fears and must have taken a toll on their mental health too. That the situation was grave, is no exaggeration and each nation state struggled to follow the correct protocol. The scope for cooperation at regional level remains not only tremendous, but crucial too.
Evidently, every member state within BIMSTEC regional grouping, apart from Nepal has declared COVID-19 patients, but there is no regional initiative or response within BIMSTEC or otherwise. A robust response mechanism for crises, medical or otherwise in future should be a priority concern for BIMSTEC members.

At the first instance a regional BIMSTEC response mechanism would have been convenient for effective evacuation purpose. As the crises unfolded the uncertainty surrounding the nationals outside their homeland was obvious. In such situations BIMSTEC as a regional response can arrange charter flights that most individual nation states did organise to bring back their stranded people. There is much more to be done and as each day new information comes to light, many families anxiously await the fate of their own being stranded in faraway lands. BIMSTEC charter flights would have been a most urgent need of the hour.

As a start the BIMSTEC.org website could have been used to disseminate information not only about the virus spread but about how each country is initiating measures to address the crises.

And given the common logistical facilities and knowledge pool within the member states it would not have been difficult to put the information, facilities and support systems being put in place through technology available. Once such a platform is set up, then activating during crises will be quick and without much delay. This would also mitigate the immediate panic that such a situation creates.

Apart from evacuations and ensuring joint mechanism in place, the BIMSTEC platform should be able to provide information about not only travel restrictions and rules about the member countries but also about other destinations. As was seen in this ongoing crisis, in the initial days there was little clarity, and many were struggling to access correct information and knowledge about the days ahead. Information about travel situations seems incomplete and a regional position on this would have been helpful for those that were not only stranded abroad but also needed to travel for work and otherwise. A shared regional response would have ben able to bring this to the people without much delay and the anxiety caused.

While many have kicked started their research and development for creating a corona vaccine and adequate medical facilities, India and other member states together could have collaborated for facilitating and enhancing this process.
Sharing of information, knowledge systems and best practices among member states would not only support the entire eco environment to deal with the crises at hand but also help prepare for the immediate aftermath.

Given the declaration of emergency in some countries like USA and the shut down in most nation states, the inevitable knockdown has been on the economy. Even apart from the economy, education and almost every sector is bound to face many hurdles in the days ahead. While the Sensex has been a reflection the sharp dip in commerce and trade this pandemic will have severe long term implications. While big business and corporations will find some ways to deal with the situation, the agricultural farmers, the local business people and cross border traders will face very critical times. The daily lives of border people are bound to deeply affected. They will if not already facing shortage in some essential goods and commodities even medical facilities and supplies that they may need and usually avail across the border through informal arrangements. Such facilities will not be available under the prevailing conditions. While border closures are necessary in such times of crises but establishing a protocol for such exigencies should find space in the regional organisations’ response mechanisms.

It is not only at the level of BIMSTEC, but the India-ASEAN is another platform that can be used to address many of the outstanding issues. COVID-19 not only affects those with the virus and need urgent medical attention but impacts those not afflicted directly by the medical symptoms. The proportions of this pandemic will leave far reaching consequences on one and every individual. We are as yet even unable to understand the depth and width of this crises. States and individuals can’t face and address this by themselves, regional, and other collaborative efforts are the need of the hour. Undoubtedly, there is a long fight ahead and BIMSTEC should get its act together and make a meaningful contribution for all its member countries in this urgent hour. BIMSTEC can you?

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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