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COVID-19 An Opportunity For Connectivity, Closer Ties Between India & Pakistan: SAPAN

“We have to learn to maintain physical distancing but at the same time create economic and healthcare closeness in South Asia,” said Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, speaking at a webinar on South Asia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The gathering also adopted a resolution describing the pandemic as a wake-up call for regional cooperation, and pressed for equitable vaccine supply across the region.

Academics, journalists, activists and doctors shared experiences and discussed strategies over the two-hour long event, organised by the recently launched South Asian Peace Action Network (SAPAN). The plenary session was followed by an interactive discussion with volunteers and healthcare professionals about their experiences on the ground.

Stressing the need for contact and collaboration across South Asian borders, Prof. Sen said our battle is not just against the Covid virus but also against the economic injustice of hunger and poverty created by the pandemic.

Prof. Sen was among nearly 200 opinion-makers and activists from across South Asia and the diaspora who came together to attend the webinar titled: ‘South Asian Solidarity in the Time of Covid: Sharing Grief, Inspiration, Hope and Strategies’.

Participants endorsed the SAPAN 30 May Resolution, presented by journalist and editor Raza Rumi, calling on South Asian societies to treat healthcare as a basic human right, increase healthcare budgets, collaborate to manage the pandemic and plan responses to future challenges. “Our future cannot be held hostage to a past. We have to form an alternative trajectory for our combined futures,” Rumi said.

Speakers discussed the situation of South Asian countries in terms of vaccination drives, awareness-building, rural infrastructure and citizen participation.

Introducing the event, Lalita Ramdas – founder Greenpeace India and a co-founder of SAPAN – said that participants had come together in solidarity and hope. Speaking from Alibag south of Mumbai, she said: “We will not just mourn but celebrate the people who came out of their comfort zones to fight this battle.”

Artist Salima Hashmi in Lahore spoke of friends consoling each other across borders. After the passing of human rights activist I.A. Rehman, she reached out to Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi: “We cried together, shared a piece of music, wrote searing columns.”

Stating that the pandemic had urgently highlighted the need for South Asian regionalism, journalist Kanak Mani Dixit from Kathmandu said: “We comprise one-fourth of the world’s population, so what we do to combat Covid-19 is important for ourselves, but also for the rest of the world.”

In Rajasthan, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, pioneers of India’s freedom of information movement stressed that calamities have no boundaries and we have to reach out to each other.

Said Dey: “So many people across South Asia have fallen into poverty because of the pandemic.” Despite being among the top 20 affected countries in the world, India is “the only country on that list that’s not providing free vaccination to all”, noted Roy.

Dr Yousuf Sheikh, President of the Association of Pakistani Physicians in New England (APPNE) highlighted the cooperation between doctors from the region. Noting that Indian and Pakistani doctors in the diaspora were reaching out to each other, he said: “Though I have never been to India I can imagine the situation there.”

The event featured a slideshow commemorating visionaries of the regional peace movement as well as prominent intellectuals, journalists, actors and activists taken by the coronavirus pandemic, including Dinesh Mohan of Delhi and Kamran Arif of Islamabad, both stalwarts of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).

“We may have lost many of our mentors and friends but not their ideas,” said an emotional Tapan Bose, founder member PIPFPD. “We will always be committed to creating democracy in the true sense, which is through the power and participation of the people.”

Participants also paid homage to veterans of the India Pakistan Soldiers’ Peace Initiative (IPSI) who have passed on over recent months. The IPSI was founded by the late Nirmala ‘Didi’ Deshpande, one of the leaders whose vision guides SAPAN. “This was a landmark initiative by Didi who tried to bring the world together with the slogan ‘jai jagat’ — long live the world,” reminisced Gen. (rtd.) Tej Kaul, chair of IPSI-India.

Journalist Ayesha Kabir from Dhaka described the government’s attempts to suppress journalist’s efforts to expose corruption during the pandemic. “Whatever our political leanings, journalists were united when reporters like Rozina Islam were persecuted for exposing the irregularities in the public health system.”

Convenor of the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) Sanjoy Hazarika from Shillong referred to media professionals as frontline workers who were “exposed to the physical threat of Covid… we have lost many colleagues to the pandemic.”

Activist Irfan Mufti in Lahore moderated the second session, chaired by Khushi Kabir in Dhaka, and Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi. They set the tone for volunteers from India and Pakistan sharing inspirational personal experiences of working on the ground during the pandemic.

Samir Gupta from Delhi introduced volunteers involved with citizen relief groups supporting Covid patients, providing oxygen cylinders for free and supporting teachers from private schools who have lost salaries due to the lockdown. The stories that emerged reflected a hope for humanity and were the fruition of the idea of neighbourly cooperation.

The speakers highlighted their experiences of organising relief and coordinating with fellow volunteers across the border to help human beings not just citizens of particular nations, like Pakistanis at home and overseas coordinating with ambulances, hospitals, and crematoriums in India during the second wave.

Last but not the least, SAPAN extended  condolences to Rahul Goswami over the loss of his father to Covid-19. Rahul shared an inspiring story of setting up a Covid support group that served over 200,000 people around India.

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Naya Daur