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14 Mar, 2020 03:48

Pakistan agrees to discuss regional Covid-19 strategy after Modi calls for cooperation, ending 4-year hiatus with South Asian bloc

Pakistan agrees to discuss regional Covid-19 strategy after Modi calls for cooperation, ending 4-year hiatus with South Asian bloc

Islamabad has signaled willingness to partake in a joint response to the coronavirus with a bloc of South Asian nations, after Indian PM Narendra Modi broke years of stalemate with the regional body and called for coordination.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui said on Friday that the country’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Zafar Mirza would participate in a joint teleconference with leaders from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to formulate a combined action plan to contain the outbreak.

“The threat of #COVID-19 requires coordinated efforts at global and regional level,” Farooqui said in a tweet. “We have communicated that SAPM on Health will be available to participate in the video conference of #SAARC member countries on the issue.”

The announcement comes hours after Modi suggested leaders of SAARC countries come together to sketch a general blueprint for tackling the illness and halting its spread in the region – a surprise change of position for New Delhi after distancing itself from the eight-nation bloc for the last four years over intense disagreements with Islamabad.

“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus,” the PM said in a tweet. “We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.”

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The SAARC’s last summit was planned for Pakistan’s capital in 2016, but the meeting was called off after a terrorist attack launched by Islamist militants in disputed Kashmir near the Line of Control left 19 Indian soldiers dead, prompting New Delhi to boycott the conference. In the wake of the attack, India accused Pakistan of supporting terrorists responsible for the killing, with Islamabad rejecting allegations it had any involvement.

The incident became one of the deadliest attacks on Indian security forces in the disputed territory, and led to a major flare-up between the two countries. India subsequently claimed it took out dozens of militants in “surgical strikes” on the Pakistan-administered part of the region. Islamabad, however, denied that any bombing ever took place.

While short of outright rapprochement between the nuclear-armed neighbors, the agreement to work out a combined response to Covid-19 comes as one of the most significant steps toward cooperation in years, a move that was welcomed by some Indian netizens and members of the press.

In addition to India and Pakistan, the SAARC’s membership consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. At least one case of the coronavirus has been observed in each of the eight member states, with India and Pakistan currently bearing the brunt of the outbreak. To date, India has seen over 80 infections, with two fatalities, while Pakistan has confirmed 28 cases and no deaths.

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