Published:  12:26 AM, 28 March 2020

The corona war: A transnational challenge is imperative

The corona war: A transnational challenge is imperative

Pandemic is blind in its fury and swallows everything in its path.  It devours everyone - men and women, children and elderly, all races, all religions irrespective of their ideological and political denominations. The novel coronavirus that has struck the humanity, like a tsunami, has already brought the mighty to their knees.

The numbers of people dead, or afflicted, are coming in an hourly   basis.  Helpless people are looking at the scientists who are   working out an effective antidote against the unprecedented danger. 

The new virus that had originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan has already moved into   193 countries.  Airports have suspended operations,    airlines cut their flights drastically, cities locked down, educational institutions and business houses were put under lock.   The WHO has issued a danger signal.   

As the death toll climbed nearly to 15,000 worldwide, and infections some 4,00000 with Italy and Spain the most affected,  the vast majority of the world humanity are  inside  quarantined zones. Curfew imposed to make the people secured.

Hubei of China, the epicenter of the virus, is claimed to be out of danger after weeks of struggle, although the world is not fully sure what the exact situation there, or how the virus had originated.

The disease has inflicted heavy cost on the Chinese economy.  Its hitherto robust economy, the second largest globally,   practically came to a grinding halt, disrupting supply chains on which manufacturing in other parts of China and countries across the world were dependent for essential components.

In fact, coronavirus has started hitting the global economy badly.  

China   has claimed zero cases of virus on March 18-20, including in Wuhan.  But on March 21, Guangdong province had an instance of local transmission from an imported case. As on March 22, the country reported 314 imported cases. As the instance shows, more number of fresh cases from local transmission can show up.

However, the turnaround in China comes at a time when the virus is galloping in Europe and is spreading in the U.S.  Even as China's success in containing the epidemic is in the spotlight, its cover-up of the outbreak until mid-January, nearly a month after the first few cases showed up, will remain a stain hard to erase. The only solace is that China did not unduly delay informing WHO about the virus unlike in the case of the 2002 SARS outbreak.

The U.S. has seen a significant spike in coronavirus cases with the total confirmed infections jumping to 34,000 while over 400 fatalities were recorded, even as one in every three Americans has been told to stay home. The disease has sharply spread   in Iran and several other countries.

Like other countries in South Asia, Bangladesh has recorded three deaths, and around 33 infected, so far. As many migrant Bangladeshis returned home, mostly from Italy, and initially unwilling to go for tests or stay quarantine, the disease has caused alarm.  

ADB has assessed that in a worst case scenario, Bangladesh may experience 1.1% fall in GDP.    As per recent UNCTAD Report, a 2% fall in imports of Chinese intermediate inputs can cost 16 million USD to Bangladesh. 

In addition to the negative impact   on various segments of economy, some infrastructure projects that involves Chinese construction companies may face uncertainties.  China's Major Bridge Engineering Company involved in construction of Padma Multipurpose Bridge has its headquarters in Wuhan city, the epicenter of coronavirus.  Many thus fear the progress of the project to its full capacity may suffer. 

After cutting air connectivity with 10 countries, Bangladesh barred foreigners through its 11 land ports. Bangladesh has already announced closure of all public and private offices, from March 26 to April 4, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus. Besides, the army were given task to assist the local administration in ensuring social distancing and implementing other precautionary measures.

People have also been advised not to go out of their home unless they need to collect food, medicines or receive treatment. Public transport services ordered to be limited. The   government is also set to roll out a massive rescue package for the low-income group, businesses and industries, all of whom are bearing the brunt of the near-collapse economic activities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country also barred all public gatherings to stop the spread of the virus while all education, recreation centers and theatres have been shut down. 

But the people  are still worried :   hospitals are reportedly lacking  capacity  to test and treat patients infected with the disease, lack of  the required amount of test kits,  doctors and medical staff  have not been provided with enough personal protective equipment (PPE),  and self-isolation or home-quarantine measures have not been found to be fully effective  due to lack of awareness .  The private initiatives which are now emerging need to be coordinated to have a greater impact. 

Collective measures 

In the midst of the global crisis, the Saarc countries for the first time came together to fight the disease.   The laudable move was initiated by the Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi to bring together the countries of the region   to collectively put a challenge. 
While the region  has started reporting  increasing number of   people affected,  there are reason for serious  concern as the region,  densely populated   and with insignificant healthcare facilities,  account for nearly one-fifth of world's  humanity. Therefore, a regional and collective cooperation is imperative,   to tackle such a complex transnational challenge.

The March 15 Video conferring, first such regional dialogue  after 2014,  was attended by  all eight Saarc  member States, when  they all  underscored priority attached to cooperation against this pandemic. 

It's a happy scenario that all the Saarc leaders listed actions taken in their countries, and shared thoughts on the way forward. India is not   also out of danger. A 'Janata Curfew', initiated by Prime Minister Modi to curb the spread of the deadly virus,   resulting in businesses being shut and transportation services largely suspended across the country. 

Health experts said India's cases have been growing at a rate seen during the early stages of the outbreak in other countries, which subsequently reported exponential increases in infections. Like that of the Centre, most   Indian states announced measures to curb the spread of the disease, many cities have declared complete shutdown.  Train and Inter-state bus operations suspended.  Private events, such as weddings, and local elections were cancelled. 

Sensibly responding to the call of Indian Diaspora abroad, the country evacuated several thousands of citizens from major outbreak areas, as well as citizens from several of their neighbors that included Bangladesh nationals. 

In the conference, India has offered   creation of a Saarc Emergency Fund, pledging US$10 million as a start. Bangladesh has also announced   contribution of $1.5 million to the Saarc Covid-19 Emergency Fund, to join the regional initiative to fight the spread of the virus under a common strategy for which the countries need to adopt a comprehensive strategy to effectively combat the fatal disease which has not only started increasing the human fatality but also impacting economies of all the countries in the region.

The conference also provided an insight into key initiative to encourage the region to rise beyond bilateral differences to combat a pandemic and its willingness to use any and all mechanisms to promote mutually beneficial cooperation. It underlined the fundamental connectedness of South Asian region emphasizing the need for all to work together, for collective good.

In Bangladesh, the global outbreak of the disease   already forced   to drastically scale down or almost cancel many of the grand festivities planned to celebrate country's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's birth centenary. It has also suspended celebrations of the Independence Day on March 26.
Saarc, remained virtually dead for years, could have been   a viable vehicle for regional cooperation. But it failed.

  Even though the deliberation was a virtual videoconferencing summit, and Pakistan took part in it with Premier Imran Khan's Special Assistant for Health Mr Zafar Mirza, it raised a hope because the entire region is in the brink of a challenge that must be talked jointly. 
Pandemic does not bother who you are. It devours everyone, irrespective of their color or political affiliations,   making no distinction whatever among race, class, caste, religion, gender, nationality and geo-spatial location. There is only one way out-- all must stand together to fight the devil.

Therefore,   it is the time to   transform the South Asian deliberations into reality, time for all of us to demonstrate our will and sagacity, to help us and other.

Haroon Habib, a Liberation war veteran, writer and commentator

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