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Physicians And Activists Stress Regional Response To COVID-19

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South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) held a webinar “Neighbours in Peace and Health” on June 27, 2021. Third in the SAPAN series – Imagine! Neighbours in Peace – the webinar concluded that COVID-19 needs a regional response, and according to physicians and activists at the online meeting, an empathetic and cooperative approach is needed especially when the stakes are too high for the already impoverished.

Sunday’s event included prominent physicians like Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr Anup Subedee, Dr Vandana Prasad, and Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan. Speakers included: Salima Hashmi, Khushi Kabir, Kanak Dixit, Lalita Ramdas, besides journalists Beena Sarwar, Mandira Nayar and others. Activist Priyanka Singh conducted the event.

The Need for a Collective Response

“South Asian countries cannot do it alone, that’s irrational,’’ said Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, renowned public health activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee from Bangladesh. The hard lockdown in his country will lead to furthering the inequalities in society, he warned, emphasizing that it is irresponsible to impose lockdowns without providing food.

“Poverty has increased. There are 25 million more poor without food.” Dr Chowdhury along with physicians and health right activists emphasized that the coronavirus pandemic must be fought collectively.

The third in the series of SAPAN’s monthly public webinars themed ‘Imagine: Neighbours in Peace’, the meeting focused on health as an entry point to talk about South Asian regionalism and Healthcare for all. Three main aspects deliberated included:

How the pandemic is affecting rural areas of South Asian countries, hurdles in treatment, and access — or lack thereof — to vaccinations.

● How COVID-19 has affected mental health, women and particularly women in rural areas of all the countries of the region

● How the challenges are similar in all countries of the region and require similar solutions.

The meeting took place at a time when South Asia is reeling from the devastating second wave of COVID-19, especially in India. With Delta plus virus mutation now detected in parts of the region, the possibility of another wave looms large.

Journalist Mandira Nayar in Delhi moderated the physicians’ panel with Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury in Dhaka; infectious diseases specialist Dr Anup Subedee in Kathmandu and public health activist Dr Vandana Prasad also in Delhi. Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan, who led the WHO team that eradicated polio in India, joined from his current posting in Jordan.

Dr Chowdhury advocated challenging vaccine-producing countries and pushing South Asian governments to invest more in public health.

Participants also noted that the pandemic has particularly hit women hard.

“Domestic violence has increased,” noted Dr Prasad. Women often lack control over finances, are primary caregivers and shoulder the responsibility of caring for the ill. The pandemic has pushed women further into the margins, she said, adding that there is also a “gender dimension to the access of vaccines”. She urged doctors to enter the peace activism domain, because the poor all over are at the brink of disaster. She drew attention to the gendered nature of pandemic and frontline workers, as well as Dalits, indigenous people, other minorities. “Telemedicine is important, but we must not lose focus on the need for ground-based public health to begin with”.

Frontline workers in India, the accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers often lack training, safety equipment and often doesn’t get her wages for months.

Assessing the loopholes in healthcare system; the imperative improvements in healthcare 

While highlighting that a public health system is meant to be a great equaliser, Dr Anup Subedee noted how the pandemic exposed systemic failures in many aspects of life in Nepal, referring not only to the grievous impact on non-Covid healthcare like child immunization and maternity care – but also the painful ordeals of healthcare community itself. He shared: the healthcare community in Nepal has been compelled to deal with threats of violence, lack of access to personal protection equipment, prospects of income loss without any social security system support, and an unaddressed mental health crisis among healthcare workers.

Joining from his current posting in Jordan, Dr Hamid Jafari, Director Polio Eradication with WHO also highlighted how the pandemic has exposed public health challenges, disparity and inequity, and impacted the polio outbreak. He made two important calls to action:

One, keep pushing for more investment in public health systems, and two, keep building resilience among the most vulnerable communities, both in the health and economic sectors. Empower people so they are not merely passive recipients of aid or devastating consequences of an outbreak, he said.

Dr Jafari shared that polio eradication frontline workers have been first responders for the COVID-19 crisis in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and perhaps elsewhere too. This was possible because of preexisting investment in the polio eradication programme. It shows the need for holistic investment in public health across the board.

Physicians at the meeting endorsed the need for greater cooperation and collaboration across borders. Participants called on the governments to allow free flow of critical equipment and medical personnel across borders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had floated the idea of a SAARC medical visas for patients and for medical teams to assist during the pandemic – something that must be followed up.

The doctors also urged the international fraternity to push for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, waiver so that the COVID-19 vaccine production can be ramped up. “It is the way forward for vaccines for all,’’ asserted Dr Prasad.

In Memoriam 

As at the previous SAPAN meeting there was a commemoration of mentors and leaders whose vision SAPAN is taking forward, like Asma Jahangir and Dr Mubashir Hasan, and Nirmala Despande and others. There was also a moment of silence to express condolences and share the grief of the families and friends of those lost to Covid and other causes over the past month. “Since we were unable to memorialise everyone, the presentation could only be symbolic,” noted Khushi Kabir.

The In Memoriam slideshow includes journalist Ghazi Salahuddin’s three siblings taken by Covid in as many weeks, including Dr Aquila Islam, Pakistan’s first woman nuclear physicist. It also included the legendary runner Milkha Singh and his wife, volleyball champ Nirmal Saini who died within days of each other, and radiologist Chinna Dua, 56, wife of journalist Vinod Dua. She had endeared herself to music and poetry lovers across the region when she joined Tina Sani some years back at the Faiz Festival in Karachi – on Facebook at this link.

Ghazi Salahuddin has written about his family tragedy in a brave and heartbreaking oped for The News, “Partings without goodbyes” (20 June 2021), noting: “my struggle to cope with this terrible bereavement was eased a bit when I reminded myself that this pandemic has devastated so many families across the world…”

Several well known activists and experts also joined from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere, including Hina Jillani, Urvashi Butalia, Jean Dreze, Kavita Srivastava, Shireen Huq, Kanak Mani Dixit and others.

The Story of SAPAN – A Recall

Artist and educator Salima Hashmi read out the SAPAN Charter and vision document, noting that the South Asia Peace Action Network is primarily a coalition of individuals and organisations aiming to take forward a peace agenda for the region, building on the work done by mentors and leaders over the last few decades.

SAPAN founder and curator Beena Sarwar shared the story of this network and her vision for an inter-generational, multi-sectoral, inter- and intra-regional coalition of individuals and organisations coming together in broad consensus for a one-point agenda.

Access for the Webinar

The live recording is online at Facebook and the Zoom recording can be accessed through this passcode: GM2&2%5.

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Naya Daur