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March 16, 2020

Pakistan says India must end IOK lockdown to save people from coronavirus

Top Story

March 16, 2020

ISLAMABAD: As the COVID-19 outbreak reaches every corner of the globe with numbers also rising in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) region, Pakistan on Sunday said that an unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response and that there must be recognition that the national and local responses still remain the key and most critical.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister and Minister of State for Health Dr Zafar Mirza, representing Pakistan in a video-conference of Saarc member states held to discuss responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, said lockdown of Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) must come to an end amid the coronavirus emergency.

“In view of the health emergency it is imperative that all the restrictions in the disputed territory (Kashmir) must be lifted immediately, opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and enable containment and relief efforts to proceed unimpeded,” he said.

The Indian media however, criticised Mirza for raising the issue of Kashmiris. By Sunday evening, Pakistan’s tally had risen to 53 confirmed cases. India called out for a neighbourhood collaboration which should be a model for the world as the battle against the COVID-10 outbreak was best fought and won together by Saarc.

“A calm, calculated, and deliberate response is need of the hour to fight coronavirus. Pakistan would like to reiterate its earlier proposal of hosting Saarc health ministers' conference at an appropriate time. The regional countries should reach out to specialised development partners including WHO for mobilisation for technical advice and resources,” said Zafar Mirza.

The video-conference was called by Indian Prime Minister Modi and attended by all the (Saarc) member nations, which looked at coming up with a joint strategy to control and monitor the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Modi proposed creating a COVID-19 emergency fund in which India will contribute $10 million. He also proposed training of 'medical response team' for Saarc countries and said that India's Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists will be at the disposal of Saarc nations to deal with the pandemic. “Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions,” said the Indian prime minister.

In a rare tweet, Modi mentioned Pakistan’s Dr Zafar Mirza’s remarks saying, “Dr Zafar Mirza thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and calls for sustained pro-active actions on behalf of member countries to combat the spread of virus #SAARCfightsCorona”.

The conference was also attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajid, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, and Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering.

"The pandemic forces us to think not in terms of nations and states, but as a collective. The unprecedented challenge, therefore, warrants unprecedented responses. We must recognise that the national and local responses remain the most critically important,” Mirza told the conference.

"It is equally important to pursue evidence and science-based responses. Stigmatisation and stereotyping is counter-productive,” he added.

In his remarks, Dr Zafar Mirza also proposed that Saarc Secretariat is best place to coordinate at regional level, which should be mandated with establishing a working group of national authorities for health information and data exchange as well as coordination for global responses in real time.

“He underscored the need to empower and mandate the Saarc Secretariat to act as platform for regional efforts to combat the pandemic. Among other measures, he proposed instituting exit screening by member states for travellers in the region, and instituting mechanisms for learning from the effective efforts of China, a Saarc observer state, in containment and control,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Dr Mirza also highlighted Pakistan’s approaches and responses to the pandemic, underscoring that Pakistan had been engaged in containment efforts from the outset of the outbreak. “Pakistan’s proactive strategy and containment efforts have been recognised and commended by the World Health Organisation,” he said.

He said Pakistan was amongst the first few countries to undertake a joint evaluation of the state of preparedness to cope with health emergences in the context of international health regulations 2005. Mirza said that the present crisis has four pillars, which include governance and financing, prevention, mitigation, and communication.

“We have decided to close all our educational institutions for three weeks, entire western border for two weeks, restrict international flights to three airports only and ban all large public gatherings, reinforced screening measures at the airports and at the ground processing,” he informed the conference.

He told the participants that Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority has been mandated and command and control centres have been established at federal and provincial level for effective coordination and surveillance at all levels. He added that COVID-19 has been characterised as a global pandemic, but at the same time it is deemed controllable, provided timely and appropriate public health measures are put in place.

“Pakistan has been involved in the containment efforts right from the outset of the outbreak,” he said, adding that Pakistan has been alerted to the dangers and therefore has put in place appropriate public health measures and developed required protocols and guidelines for the safety of our citizens.

The special assistant said if our health systems, disease surveillance system and preventive measures are unable to cope, the human and economic cost alone can be staggering. Region-wise growth process will also be affected. National agendas will be harmed.

According to media reports, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pointed to learning from the best practices of China which has successfully overcome the COVID-19.

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said that the priority now is to contain the virus at all costs. The geographical location of Maldives makes this a challenge and an opportunity as well.

President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasised the need for South Asia to share ideas and best practices in order to face up to the challenge of the rapid spread of the virus. He also said that Saarc leaders should formulate mechanism for economies to tide over problems posed by coronavirus.

Bhutanese premier Lotay Tshering said that the Saarc member states must be willing to share resources and in addition to thinking about acute relief, the nations must also think of long-term impact of the coronavirus.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that it is important to control rumours that create panic and that the is discussion on COVID-19 should not end here. "We must continue this further with our health officials," he said. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed hope that Saarc nations will be able to combat this situation together.