The crusade against Coronavirus
India has been playing an active role in the global fight against COVID-19 and PM Narendra Modi’s call to host a video conference meet of SAARC leaders was a significant step in that direc-tion. Under the PM’s guidance, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been taking several steps to make sure we win this fight
In mid-March, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a video conference summit of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to develop a roadmap to fight the challenge of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic together, he set a new precedence in international diplomacy. The video conference was not only a huge success in the fight against the virus but may also set the tone for the future of high-level diplomatic interactions.
Prime Minister Modi’s initiative asserted India’s leadership role in SAARC, once again. This was a pragmatic diplomatic move, given the intermingling of people and cultures across India’s borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Since then, PM Modi’s initiative has galvanised SAARC externally and internally to fight the spread of the virus and help the infected. It has led to a constant exchange of information and cooperation between health authorities of member nations, and avoidance of unilateral steps to the detriment of other SAARC countries. COVID-19, which originated from Wuhan, China in November 2019, has spread quickly across the world, and a majority of countries around the globe are now grappling with a growing number of infections, deaths and lock-downs. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID -19 a pandemic in March, 2020.
- Coronavirus is an RNA virus that has high mutation rates, which can be correlated with enhanced virulence
- For Coronavirus, the transmission range varies from 2.1 to 4.1, almost three times the required number
- No vaccine exists for the disease and the only treatment is symptomatic. The elderly, infirm and the sick are particularly vulnerable. There is, thus, a need to decrease transmission by two-thirds to contain the epidemic.
Consequently, the Indian government took a number of timely and proactive steps to identify, contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Effective March 13, India decided to suspend all visas, barring select categories, till April 15. An advisory was also issued under which no scheduled international commercial passenger aircraft could take off from any foreign airport for any airport in India, after 0001 hrs GMT of March 22, effectively closing India’s borders. This was followed by PM Modi’s announcement of a 21-day lockdown, which has since been extended till May 3. This was done to break the chain of transmission of the virus and to “flatten the curve” of infections.
All incoming travellers, including Indian nationals from COVID-19-hit nations after February 15, were quarantined for a minimum of 14 days. Since PM Modi’s first address to the nation on March 19, when he called for a one day “Janta curfew”, he has constantly sought to involve the people in joint action against the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19.
PM Modi also contacted King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the current chairman of G20 (a group of 19 countries and the European Union), to organise a virtual conference of member nations on the COVID-19 crisis. The G20, in a virtual meeting at the end of March, agreed to suspend both principal and interest payments for the developing countries through the end of the year. This is expected to free up to USD 20 billion for such countries, an amount they can spend on improving their health systems and fighting the pandemic. The finance, trade, employment, tourism and health ministers of G20 nations have also met subsequently.
India also waived restrictions for export of drugs like Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol, which are being used to treat COVID-19 patients, to more than 100 countries. This includes USA, Russia, Spain, the UK, Brazil, Jordan, Egypt, and partner nations of SAARC, BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), GCC, Latin America and Africa. While the Prime Minister holds discussions with heads of states from across the world every day, there have been several high-level exchanges as well. India and Russia have discussed facilitating the emergent needs of medicines and equipment in both countries as part of their efforts to contain COVID-19. China too has thanked India for its support to fight the virus in China, after India sent about 15 tonnes of medical assistance to the coronavirus-hit Wuhan city. In April, a team of Indian medical experts was sent to Kuwait, following a phone call between PM Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of the State of Kuwait HH Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and his Kuwaiti counterpart also held a telephone conversation to further strengthen cooperation during these challenging times.
LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION
India has teamed up with a number of countries in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. By April 7, PM Modi had completed a round of consultations with all GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, focusing on possible plurilateral cooperation in fighting the pandemic. India has been in regular touch with Germany in order to invigorate the Alliance for Multilateralism, which was initiated by Germany in 2019 and comprises several dozen countries. On March 21, India also participated in a video conference organised by the US for the senior officials of seven Indo-Pacific countries — USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand besides India — in order to discuss strategies for fighting the disease and also to agree on joint cooperation, mutual assistance and steps to revive economies. These online meetings are continuing on a periodic basis.
INDIA FOR ITS CITIZENS
The Indian missions, in Iran and Italy, which had become the epicenter of the pandemic early on, have been in regular touch with Indian nationals in the countries and have been constantly advising them on following all health protocols amidst the outbreak. Medical teams were sent to both countries to test Indian nationals for the virus. In Iran, the Indian mission not only evacuated but also helped in establishing a quarantine facility. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar had travelled to Srinagar on March 9 and met the families of Indian students in Iran, heard their concerns and briefed them about the efforts being made to ensure their welfare.
There are millions of Indians who are engaged in jobs and businesses across the world. Some of them, in the light of the raging pandemic, would like to return to India. Indian missions and its envoys are, in the interim, regularly in touch with the Indian nationals working or studying in these countries, in order to take care of their difficulties.
The Govt of India has rightly identified that the Coronavirus pandemic can only be handled though a synchronous public-private-people partnership. The government has already identified adequate laboratories in the public and private sector as testing facilities. All efforts are being made to successfully counter the pandemic following the best medical practices and Standard Operating Procedures developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research which is the nodal agency for fighting the Coronavirus challenge in India. As long as the pandemic lasts, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs will continue to be in touch with its nationals, coordinate further evacuations as needed, and support India’s diplomatic efforts in global organisations like SAARC, BIMSTEC and G20 to galvanise a common front to fight this unprecedented menace.