That the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should have a summit held by teleconferencing in accordance with the spirit of the times, when human-to-human contact, even of such exaggerated and formal nature as at a summit, has been prohibited by a desire to avoid falling victim to COVID-19, the ungainly name given by the WHO bureaucracy to the illness caused by the coronavirus. As the SAARC members are all under threat from the illness, it does make sense for them to concert measures to combat the disease. It is also worth remembering that two members (Pakistan and Afghanistan) neighbour Iran, which is now acknowledged as a centre from which the disease is spreading, and three more (India, Nepal and Bhutan) China, where the disease first appeared, and which still has the most cases, and has suffered the most deaths, in the world.
It was an irony that the man convening the teleconference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was responsible for sabotaging the last SAARC conference just because its location had rotated round to Islamabad. SAARC had played no part in his foreign policy, especially since he maintained a hawkish anti-Pakistan stance, with a war scare last year that helped him to re-election, and an anti-Muslim stance which saw him push through first a lockdown of India-Occupied Kashmir which has lasted since August 4 last year, and then a controversial CAA and misuse of the NRC. Him feeling the need to convene the teleconference was a sign that the coronavirus threat was such that it overcame the kind of sectarian or ethnic divisions which people like him use for electoral gain.
Mr Modi’s own proposals, of a fund, as well as of a ministerial-level conference, are unexceptionable, as is the need to exchange information, but the need to end the lockdown in Occupied Kashmir was raised by Prime Minister’s Special Assistant for Health Services, Dr Zafar Mirza, who represented the country, the only non-head of government to take part. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s absence may have been caused by his old decision not to talk to Mr Modi until relations between the two countries are more amenable but nevertheless, in the present atmosphere, attendance at the SAARC videoconference moot was desirable.