SAP Pakistan leaders endorsed this May 30, 2021, call by the South Asian Peace Action Network to call for regional cooperation for South Asia.
Use the Covid-19 pandemic as opportunity to invest in public healthcare around South Asia and promote regionalism
South Asian governments must collaborate to ensure vaccine, medicine, and oxygen supply to the entire region, in the spirit of cohabitation and equity in a region of historical cultural affinity
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of healthcare systems around the world, with some countries faring better than others in terms of protecting their citizens.
The South Asian region, home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population, has healthcare systems that are among the worst in the globe. Medical and healthcare professionals in all the countries of this region face similar challenges.
We, the undersigned, affirm that healthcare is a basic human right tied to the concepts of representative democracy, equity and human dignity.
In this under-funded field dominated by the private sector, the poor are left to fend for themselves and even the well-to-do are not served adequately as witnessed in India recently. At least a quarter of a million deaths since January this year have left families and communities in India devastated, and the economy impacted for the long term.
We fear that the unfolding tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to engulf other countries with similarly poor healthcare systems. Covid-19 infections are already spiking elsewhere, particularly Nepal which shares a long and open border with India. Infection rates are rising in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka has entered another period of lockdown. Afghanistan is entering a phase of grave security crisis even as the pandemic spreads.
Challenging and difficult as the situation is, we believe that the Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to evaluate, introspect and improve governance. The weaknesses laid bare by the pandemic provide lessons for regional cooperation, not only in healthcare planning and response but in other areas from governance to economic policy, conflict-resolution and peace-building.
We believe that the pandemic must be used as an alarm bell for civil society across South Asian countries to work to revive the spirit of regional cooperation. Empathy and amity will lead to social and economic advancement of the entire region. To begin with, the reduction of internal and external challenges will lead to reduced security expenditures, and vast amounts of funds would be released in each society for social spending, including in the health sector.
In the need for vaccines and their fair distribution, in the desperate need for medical oxygen supply, and in the poor quality of public hospitals and public healthcare all over South Asia, we see a clear need for South Asia-wide cooperation during the current pandemic and into the future. This may be an opportune time to revive the idea of an association of physicians of South Asia which could help spearhead this effort.
Both within countries and across nations there is also an urgent need to strengthen and streamline systems to manage emergencies, including public health emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic, so that available resources can be efficiently and equitably distributed for the benefit of local communities.
Besides collaborating to tackle public health crises of the future, the spirit of regional cooperation is also vital to take on other global challenges that make South Asia especially vulnerable, from the climate crisis to species loss, plastic pollution and loss of cultural diversity. Within South Asia, we need to cooperate on the entire range of issues from economic growth models to local governance, safeguarding of minority rights, economic and social rights, civil and political rights, as well as accountability and devolution/decentralisation.
We reaffirm our faith in humanity, as seen in health professionals working around the clock in great personal danger to help victims of Covid-19, filling the vacuum left by formal state structures. We draw inspiration from those working in each country as well as across borders, and the voluntary working on relief and resource distribution carried out regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality.
We observe from the past year’s experience that the most decentralised of the region’s states and provinces have been the most successful in tackling the pandemic and ensuring equity in services provided.
Against the backdrop of the raging Covid-19 pandemic, we urge the civil society and governments of South Asia to:
1. Commit to South Asia-wide regional cooperation across the national borders to ensure equitable distribution of vaccine supplies, as well as other needs, including medical oxygen and critical care resources. Within each country, ensure the principle of equal access to medical facilities.
2. Provide clear and consistent messaging in various languages about the need for lockdowns, mask-wearing and physical distancing.
3. Work to immediately raise healthcare budgets and improve public hospitals, clinics and health posts.
4. Act on the understanding that, for public health as well as the general welfare of the people in each country, the vital governance component is devolution (empowering provinces and states, particularly of the larger countries) and decentralisation (empowering local governments and grassroots organisations all over).
To see the signatories, visit SAPAN’s website.