The novel coronavirus is a pandemic that is affecting every country and region around the globe, including South Asia. Unfortunately, South Asia has all the makings of a public health disaster. It is densely populated, has poor health infrastructure and is geographically close to some of the countries that were hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Pakistan shares borders with China as well as Iran. The former is where the virus originated and the latter is one of the most affected countries. China has a huge presence in Pakistan, especially because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The number of cases in this region is on the rise, despite measures being taken by the countries to halt the spread of the virus. So far, Pakistan and India have a relatively small number of cases but the numbers are rising and may be higher already considering the lack of kits available for widespread testing.
This is a region that has some of the highest urban population density in the world. Five of the top ten most densely populated cities are located in South Asia. No one has yet developed a vaccine for COVID-19. Thus, having adequate supplies and enforcing and adopting social distancing are the only means to control the spread. The consequences of a Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia would be catastrophic. More than a fifth of the world’s population resides here and contributes to more than 15% global economic production.
The governments of the region have acted decisively in light of this pandemic. Along with restricting air travel, they have clamped borders shut, banned public gatherings, closed malls, cinemas and other public spaces, including parks. The World Health Organization representative in Pakistan has gone so far as to say that the country’s response to stave off the virus has been one of the best in the world.
One of the most inspiring steps was the March 2020 videoconference between all members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has struggled for years, mostly because the nasty India-Pakistan rivalry is a hurdle in its efficient working. Any steps that are taken in order to stimulate regional collaboration are a welcome change. Specifically with regards to South Asia, which is one of most divided and poorly integrated areas, cross-border collaboration is hindered in large part due to inadequate electricity grids, bad road networks and bitter diplomatic relations between countries.
However, experts posit that this “disaster diplomacy” (prompted by calamities) is usually transitory. When faced with big disasters, leaders tend to try to resolve their differences in order to counter the issue at hand. Unfortunately, this placing of the collective good above national interests takes a backseat as soon as the disaster abates. The old propagandas and suspicions start spreading again. This has been the pattern, specifically in the South Asian region, for the past few decades.
The question that arises is: are the current efforts at diplomacy through SAARC going to revive regionalism or will they inevitably lead down the same road of bitter enmity? The fact is that natural disasters are short-lived events. When nature strikes, damage is done, humankind takes measures to rebuild and rehabilitate and, then forgets about the long-term repercussions of climate catastrophe. Paradoxically, the covid-19 crisis is changing the global political economy in the right direction. It is changing the way countries relate to each other and even the way humans behave. Its effects are going to be profound and long-term and will be the impetus for new, and hopefully better, relations between countries. What remains to be seen is whether this crisis will usher in a new era of peace and collaboration within our region or will South Asia remain stuck in the quicksand of tension and bitter enmity.