Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday proposed creating a COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Saarc countries saying they can respond best only by coming together, not growing apart.
"It's clear that we have to work together. We can respond best by coming together not growing apart; collaboration not confusion; preparation not panic," he said.
Modi said the emergency fund could be based on voluntary contributions from all of them and India can start with an initial offer of US$10 million for this fund.
Prime Minister Modi said this while sharing his thoughts on coronavirus situation in Saarc countries and beyond in a videoconference with the other Saarc leaders.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina joined the videoconference from Dhaka with other Saarc member countries to chalk out a strong common strategy to fight COVID-19 in the region.
The videoconference began at 5pm (New Delhi time) and 5:30pm (Bangladesh time).
Indian High Commission in Dhaka arranged screening of live videoconference of the Saarc leaders.
The Indian Prime Minister said they fully recognise that they are still in an unknown situation.
"We can’t predict with certainty how the situation will unfold despite our best efforts. You must also be facing similar concerns. This is why it would be most valuable for all of us to share our perspectives," he said mentioning that they are facing a serious challenge.
Modi laid emphasis on staying vigilant saying they must succeed together as the countries are still in an unknown situation.
"So far, our region has listed fewer than 150 cases. But we need to remain vigilant," he said briefly sharing India’s experience of combating the spread of this virus so far as they prepare to face this challenge.
“’Prepare, but don’t panic’ has been our guiding mantra," he said.
Modi said they started screening entry into India from mid-January itself, while also gradually increasing restrictions on travel.
The step-by-step approach has helped avoid panic, Modi said adding, "We have made special efforts to reach out to vulnerable groups."
The Indian Prime Minister said they have worked to quickly ramp up capacity in their system including through training their medical staff across the country.
"We also responded to the call of our people abroad. We evacuated nearly 1,400 Indians from different countries. We also similarly helped some of the citizens of our neighborhood countries," Modi said.
COVID-19 has recently been classified by WHO as a pandemic.
Modi thanked all for joining this special interaction at a short notice. "I specially thank our friend Prime Minister Oli who has joined us almost immediately after his recent surgery," he said.
The Saarc region is a home to nearly one-fifth of all humanity and it is densely populated.
"As developing countries, all of us have significant challenges in terms of access to healthcare facilities. Our people-to-people ties are ancient and our societies are deeply inter-connected," he said adding, "We must all prepare together, we must all act together, and we must all succeed together."
Modi said they were careful to not underestimate the problem, but also to avoid knee-jerk reactions. "We have tried to take proactive steps, including a graded response mechanism," he said.
India has increased their public awareness campaigns on TV, print and social media.
Modi said they have also increased diagnostic capabilities and within two months, they moved from one major facility for pan-India testing to more than 60 such labs.
"And, we have developed protocols for each stage of managing this pandemic: for screening at entry points; contact tracing of suspected cases; quarantine and management of isolation facilities; and for discharge of cleared cases," he said.
The Indian Prime Minister said they have now built up a protocol for such evacuations, including carrying out testing by their mobile teams deployed abroad.
"We recognised that other countries would be also concerned about their citizens in India. So, we briefed foreign Ambassadors about the steps we were taking."
Looking ahead, Modi said, they could create a common Research Platform, to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within South Asian region.
The Indian Council of Medical Research can offer help for coordinating such an exercise, he said.
Modi said they had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted. "We could share this Disease Surveillance software with Saarc partners, and training on using this."
Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Ali underlined the importance of community awareness and effective mobilisation to control the spread of virus.
He welcomed regional initiatives taken by Indian Prime Minister Modi.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said many lessons were learnt from the sharing of experiences in the videoconference and thanked Modi for offering assistance like testing kits to regional countries.
President of the Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih welcomed Modi‘s suggestion of setting up a COVID-19 Emergency Fund.
President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani welcomed various new initiatives suggested by Modi and suggests all countries to keep a close focus on the next months on the evolving situation.
Dr Zafar Mirza, Pakistan State Minister of Heath, observed that Pakistan shares the common regional concerns on the virus- “while hoping for the best, we have to prepare for the worst”.
Bhutanese Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering welcomed setting up of the COVID-19 fund and acknowledged the contribution of health care professionals to combating the virus.
Later Modi said, "We have to fight this battle together, and we have to win it together. Our neighbourhood collaboration should be a model for the world."
He said some partners have made specific requests, including about medicine and equipment.
"My team has taken careful note of these. Let me assure you, that we will do our best for our neighbours."
On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a strong strategy by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) member countries to fight the coronavirus threat in South Asian region.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina welcomed Modi’s proposal and look forward to a constructive dialogue with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and other heads of state and government who have already agreed to discuss way forward at this testing time for the region and the world.