COVID-19: A Case For Interconnected South Asia

COVID-19: A Case For Interconnected South Asia
Renowned journalist Barkha Dutt’s appeal has highlighted the importance of world’s interconnectedness and the regionalism in South Asia. “Don’t treat this as our problem alone,” pleaded journalist Barkha Dutt after her father died overnight due to Covid, one of over 2,500 Indians reported to have succumbed to the deadly virus on Tuesday.

If the Covid-19 crisis "erupts" in India, it will "hit the world", she warned in a televised interview with ITV even as she dealt with her own grief as a daughter having lost her father.

Countries understandably want to shut borders as a “necessary” short term response and put their citizens first, she said, but “we live in a world where we cannot be separated indefinitely”.

On April 25, concerned South Asians in an online gathering had made a similar plea underscoring the connected nature of today’s world and the regionalism of South Asia.

“Is it possible we use this incredible crisis of public health to recalibrate relationships in South Asia?” asked Kanak Mani Dixit, a well-known Nepali journalist and publisher. “We need to be able to move ahead as regionalists. We don’t have a choice.”

The term South Asia and its translation in each of our languages is something that we must own, he urged. “We must understand that South Asia is not just a romantic concept. It is a concept for economic growth, for equity and for social justice.”

This is why there is a need to re-conceptualize South Asia and to implement SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, but as Dixit added, “South Asia is much more than the organization of SAARC.”

The discussion held under the banner of the newly launched South Asia Peace Action Network, highlighted the urgent need for South Asian nations to cooperate in the public health sector to mitigate the horrors of the Covid-19 and future challenges. The original topic, "#KhelneDo (play for peace) - Imagine! Neighbors in Peace” was changed at the last minute to enable participants to share their grief and express solidarity at a time when the Covid crisis is devastating the region.

Some losses and experiences the participants shared poignantly illustrate the issue. Minutes after they watched a music video by Laal Band based on legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Dard tham jaye ga, gham na kar” (the pain will ebb, don’t despair), Lahore-based educationist Baela Raza Jamil left the meeting hearing that her cousin died due to Covid - he was Laal vocalist Mahwash Waqar’s father.

Faiz’s daughter, Salima Hashmi was also at the event, didn’t speak, but posted supportive and inspiring messages in the chat like: “We are the dreamers , and like all dreamers, it is our ideas which lend strength to those who move forward... Be firm and surefooted and it will happen one day.”

Another participant, eminent sports journalist Sharda Ugra in Bangalore talked about having a friend in Mumbai that morning, prominent photojournalist Vivek Bendre.

Over 118 journalists have died in India due to Covid-19, according to Press Emblem Campaign in Switzerland. The organisation has since March 2020 run a corona-ticker in tribute to the journalists killed by the Covid-19 around the world and “to put names and faces to the numbers.”

At least 1203 journalists have died of Covid-19 in 75 countries so far, says PEC. The 20 most affected include India (118), Bangladesh (52) and Pakistan (25).

Two peace activists passed away of Covid in India Sunday morning, said Beena Sarwar, a senior journalist who moderated that evening’s event.

Karamat Ali, a Karachi based trade unionist and long-time peace activist, was visibly distressed as he shared that his wife and her sister in Delhi are suffering from Covid, but he is unable to go and be with them as he doesn’t have a visa. He expressed outrage at the hurdles, demanding that both governments of both sides should at least allow visa free entries or quick visa services to members of divided families.

He called for both governments honour their 2012 agreement to allow visa-on-arrival facilities to senior citizens above 65-years of age. Several Delhi-based participants have since been in touch with him and his family in India to help them. Some are also helping him obtain a visa in case he needs to go.

Speaking at the event, leading Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai expressed his sadness over the sufferings of his fellow countrymen. However, he said he was “glad to see many people from across the borders are reaching out to each other to share the pain and sufferings.” Like many others, he also viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for people of the region to come together.

“Rajdeep, we in Pakistan feel the sadness and helplessness. It is something we share ..We can only offer love and concern!” said Salima Hashmi.

The situation, for all its dire and tragic dimensions, provides governments an opportunity to re-visit their approach towards regional cooperation, agreed participants.

It is encouraging that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is on board the efforts being made by the South Asia Peace Action Network to further a regional narrative, along with a host of other eminent South Asians.

The SAPAN coalition includes Delhi-based peace activist Dr Syeda Hameed, a former member of the Planning Commission. She paid tribute to peace icons I.A Rahman, Asma Jahangir, Dr Mubashir Hassan and others who have transferred the flag of peace to the younger generation and whose vision guides the South Asia Peace Action Network. Dr Hameed’s poignant readings of the poetry of Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi embody hope and strength in times of despair.

Lalita Ramdas, author and peace and environmental activist introduced the basic objective of SAPAN, a platform bringing together various organizations and individuals. With region facing colossal issues like hunger, poverty, illiteracy, climate change and now the pandemic, there is dire need to defeat them collectively, she said. Weapons cannot do that.

The focus of the the event, originally a call to open sporting ties and visas in the South Asia, was changed at the last minute due to the dire situation on the ground in India where a mounting daily death toll and rising infection rates are stretching health facilities, crematoriums and burial grounds beyond capacity.

Many of the original featured speakers joined and shared their thoughts about the tragedy being inflicted by the pandemic, as well as the need for regional cooperation and resumption of sports and particularly cricket events between India and Pakistan.

Former Pakistani test cricketer Jalaluddin appreciated Pakistan’s offer to provide medical facilities to India, even as Pakistan itself struggles to meet the domestic challenges posed by the pandemic.

Noreena Shams, the first female athlete from Malakand division of Pakistan, spoke hesitatingly at first, as one of the youngest persons there. She gave a moving message about the need for joint activities to bring property and development to the region.

Sports journalists Afia Salam and Zainab Abbas also spoke about the need to open sports activities between India, Pakistan, and other countries of the region. They shared stories of the enthusiasm and joy that grip India and Pakistan when cricket matches are held between two sides, which is unlike anywhere in the world.

Ravinder Singh Robin, a senior journalist in Amritsar, said that that the governments must allow sporting ties as a prerequisite to normalising relations and other activities. He had helped a Pakistani family stuck in India after they had taken their son over for medical treatment just before the first wave of Covid-19 hit the region, and the border was closed.

Los Angeles-based businessman, Azhar Hameed who runs an India-Pakistan golf tournament, said that there are 40 million expatriate Indians and Pakistanis abroad who get along fine. He said that arranging sports activities among the Pakistani and India diaspora would compel the governments back home to allow sporting events between each other’s teams back home.

Nazneen Firdousi, a Bangladeshi communications expert who was born in Karachi, Rahul Mukherjii, Dhaka-based activist Khushi Kabir, also spoke on the occasion.

The discussion overall underscored the urgency of Barkha Dutt appeal just a few days later about the need to recognise the world’s interconnectedness, and that of the South Asian region.







The author is a Lahore based journalist. He writes about religion, politics, culture, agriculture and 1947’s Indo-Pak partition. He can be reached @imiftikharalam