India offers funds, technology, rapid response teams to SAARC nations at COVID-19 conference; Pak politicises humanitarian cause

New Delhi [India], Mar 15 (ANI): Forgetting differences with Pakistan, India has come to the forefront to play a pivotal role among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations amid the outbreak of novel coronavirus that has killed more than 6,000 people globally.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday held a video conference with the leaders of SAARC member nations to exchange their views and share New Delhi's experience in fighting the pandemic. Government sources said India has taken a lead in combatting the pandemic, as evident from the series of initiatives taken by the country in the past two months.

"India has taken lead in tackling coronavirus. We heard of coronavirus for the first time from China on December 31 last year and by January 15, 2020, we had started the screening process at airports. This was followed by the suspension of visas and OCI card. Then, we carried out the evacuation, setting an example for the world, given that the initiative emanated from India," government sources said.

"We were the first to put restrictions on travel from China. We also suspend visas, which might look regressive, but is ultimately always better. We have handled the situation in the most proactive manner," sources added.

So far, India has evacuated a total of 766 people from China, 124 from Japan, 336 from Iran, and 218 from Italy.

Speaking on the SAARC's impact on the region, the government sources explained: "In the regional terms, SAARC countries are largely unaffected. In relative terms, the count of 150 infections is a small number."

"In comparison to other regions, India is more integrated with the world. We cannot take this for granted. We are reaching out to the neighbours," sources said.

"Some SAARC countries had a huge influx of visitors from China. Our leadership role is looked upon in the region. In that context, it made a logical sense and rationale move," government sources said, referring to Sunday's video conference.

During the conference, Prime Minister Modi had proposed the creation of an emergency fund to combat the coronavirus pandemic and pitched India's initial offer of USD 10 million for this fund."Each country has its exposure. Our teams will provide guidance on the quarantine and the protocol for the same. India has also offered to share its online software. We have developed a sophisticated system to get real-time analysis of the situation," government sources said.

The Prime Minister has also proposed the creation of a common research platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemic disease within the South Asian region. Modi also announced that the country is assembling a rapid response team of doctors and specialists along with testing kits and other equipment.

"The proposal for the common research was also offered not only for the COVID-19 pandemic but also other epidemics and areas. Many ideas which we offered received a great deal of appreciation," sources said.

"Many countries are seeking help for the provision of medicines. The government is processing the request given that there is a shortage in our own country. We had sent 15 tonnes of medical equipment to the Chinese city of Wuhan. Efforts have been made to reach out and help," government sources added.

The SAARC video conference was held at a very short notice and required an extraordinary effort at a record pace. However, the Pakistani representative tried to sabotage and politicise the conference by raking up the Kashmir issue.

Speaking on this, the government sources said, "Pakistan sent their Health Minister, who was uncomfortable in speaking. He was given a slip. It's a churlish approach. This is a humanitarian issue and Pakistan tried to politicise the humanitarian issue."

They criticised Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's absence from the conference, noting that the initiative witnessed the participation of leaders of all SAARC nations including Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who was discharged from the hospital on Saturday after undergoing a kidney transplant.

"Even Nepal's Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli participated a day after he was discharged from the hospital. Each leader participated from the SAARC except Pakistani PM Imran Khan," sources said.

The Pakistani side was represented by Zafar Mirza, State Minister for Health, who in his address at the conference, said that it was imperative that the lockdown in Kashmir be lifted in view of the health emergency after the coronavirus outbreak.

On being asked whether Sunday's initiative would revive SAARC, the government sources said: "It is too premature. It brought together the leaders of SAARC to deal with the emergency situation. Whether it can lead to any other initiative is difficult to say. Pakistan's comment doesn't merit reaction, it showed what they are." (ANI)