COVID-19: India’s Health Diplomacy

Dr. Shreya Upadhyay
April 5, 2020


Image Courtesy: Economic Times

Recently, leaders from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan participated in an India-led Video Conferencing for a “joint strategy to fight the coronavirus outbreak”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter to request this meeting and later also called upon the G-20 leaders for a similar initiative. Covid-19, the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, has claimed tens of thousands of lives and has affected millions worldwide. As countries struggle to fight the deadly respiratory illness, India’s health diplomacy is being viewed as an attempt to bring the region together. The article looks at how efficacious the attempt will be in saving lives from the virus. 

Why SAARC? Why Now?

India has been keeping SAARC at a distance since the 2016 Uri attacks conducted by Pakistani based terror groups. Intending to isolate Pakistan on a bilateral and multilateral level, India boycotted the 19th SAARC summit. PM Modi, who had invited SAARC leaders during his first oath-taking ceremony in 2014 as the Prime Minister, did not do the same when he won the 2019 Parliamentary elections. India has focused more on Act East, BIMSTEC nations, and connectivity initiatives such as the BBIN that have borne tangible outcomes.  

The crisis, however, provides a window of opportunity for India’s leadership in the region. Notably, the number of cases reported in South Asia as of now is on the lower end of the spectrum, and it is feared that an inadequate healthcare system in most of the South Asian countries coupled with high-density population poses a considerable risk. Moreover, as India shares borders with most of the SAARC nations, it becomes India’s imperative to steer the humanitarian effort within the region. India has also been successful in the commensuration of mass mobilization with precautionary measures and has already been conducting evacuations of its citizens from virus-hit locations. It has evacuated foreign nationals from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal as well. India has been providing medical supplies to the Maldives and has sent a medical team to assist Maldivian healthcare authorities. That does not come without its challenges. Pakistan’s cold response, for instance, is noteworthy. It had snubbed India’s offer of evacuating Pakistani students stuck in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus. At the time of writing this article, Pakistan had the maximum number of cases among the SAARC nations. However, it sent a Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, to participate in the conference even as all other member countries were represented by their heads of state. There was also a mention of the Kashmir issue in the conference, which was strictly called for devising measures to deal with the epidemic. In this light, while India can find temporary resonance with SAARC, dealing with intractable issues might require investing more resources and political will.  

The Politics of Aid 

During the conference, India announced setting up of COVID-19 emergency fund of USD 10 million for the disposal of member states for the fight against the outbreak. Out of that, USD 1 million has already been dispersed. Other countries such as Maldives, Nepal, and Bhutan have also pledged contributions to the emergency fund. Prime Minister Modi, during the conference, also mooted a disease surveillance portal to better contact tracing and surveillance over the disease’s spread. This was a step, albeit small, to respond to the US-China fray of disbursing aid in the region. The US has offered development USD 1 million in assistance to Pakistan to fight the pandemic. China has announced a fund of about USD 4 million along with 30,00,000 face masks, ten ventilators, and other equipment to its all-weather friend. China has already offered a concessionary loan of USD 500 million to Sri Lanka. The US has also been giving aid through various agencies to countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Is it enough?

Till now, the South Asian countries have been adopting containment measures to stop the spread of the virus. ‘Flatten the curve’ is the mantra being adopted that will not allow the healthcare system to be overstretched. The authorities have enforced strict social distancing and isolation regulations. Schools and businesses have been ordered to shut down as well as gyms, cinema halls, malls have been shut down. Non-essential travel has been curbed. India, on 22 March, conducted the social experiment of ‘Janata curfew’, after which large swathes of the country have been put on lockdown with passenger trains, interstate buses, suburban and metro trains being halted till 31 March. India has implemented a colonial-era epidemic law that empowers officials to enforce rigorous containment measures and impose penalties on defaulters. Among other countries, Sri Lanka delayed scheduled parliamentary elections and banned all incoming flights till 31 March. However, many of these countries have large immigrant populations settled in European nations. Bangladesh has a large migrant population in Italy – among the worst affected country right now. Afghanistan and Pakistan have porous borders with Iran, another greatly affected country. 

India’s response, while noteworthy, needs to be more robust. For starters, measures discussed in the video conferencing need to be followed through soon. However, that would not be enough. India needs to showcase its leadership as a regional power by delegating more resources- masks, suits, and critical drugs. The world needs strong multilateralism to fight this virus!  

*** Dr. Shreya Upadhyay is Principal Analyst, India Bound and teaches International Relations at the Symbiosis University in India. She was a Nehru Fulbright scholar at American University, Washington DC. Her interest lies in looking at policy ramifications of geostrategic events ***