South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations on Sunday vowed to jointly combat coronavirus as Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed an emergency fund with an initial offer of USD 10 million from India and asserted that the region can best respond to the pandemic by coming together and not growing apart.
The underlying message of the video conference was unitedly taking on the virus, but Pakistan used the occasion to raise Kashmir issue, calling for the immediate lifting of the "lockdown" there to allow disease containment measures.
Government sources said Pakistan's attempt to "politicise" a humanitarian issue by its "unwarranted" statement on Kashmir during the video conference on coronavirus reflected "very poorly" on it.
Apart from PM Modi, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Bhutanese premier Lotay Tshering, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister on Health Zafar Mirza, participated in the video conference.
In his opening remarks, PM Modi said India's guiding mantra to deal with the virus was "prepare, but don't panic".
"We were careful to not underestimate the problem, but also to avoid knee-jerk reactions," he said.
In a significant message, PM Modi asserted that it was important for the SAARC member countries to work together and said the region can best respond to the coronavirus pandemic by "coming together, not growing apart".
PM Modi said it was important to focus on collaboration, not confusion, and preparation, not panic.
Mr Mirza, in his remarks, also hailed China for its efforts to deal with coronavirus and urged other SAARC nations to learn best practices from it.
Raising Kashmir, he said, "Equity in health is a fundamental principle of public health. In this regard, let me say that it is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir. In view of the health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown" there must be lifted immediately, he said.
"Opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and allow containment...to proceed unimpeded," Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister on Health Mirza said.
Government sources said Pakistan chose to be "churlish" and used the video conference for political point scoring.
After initial remarks by the leaders, Prime Minister Modi made a series of suggestions which were hailed by the SAARC leaders and representatives.
"I propose we create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund. This could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of 10 million dollars for this fund. Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions," PM Modi said.
He said the member nations' foreign secretaries, through embassies, can coordinate quickly to finalise the utilisation of this fund.
Sources later said the funds from India will be made available immediately.
The fund will be coordinated through embassies and it will be used for immediate mitigation of the disease, they said.
"We are assembling a Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists in India, along with testing kits and other equipment. They will be on stand-by, to be placed at your disposal, if required," PM Modi told the SAARC leaders.
India had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal to better trace possible virus carriers and the people they contacted and it could share this disease surveillance software with SAARC partners, PM Modi said.
"Looking ahead, we could create a common research platform, to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within our South Asian region. The Indian Council of Medical Research can offer help coordinating such an exercise," he said.
PM Modi also thanked Mr Oli for participating in the video conference almost immediately after his recent surgery and congratulated President Ghani for his recent re-election. The new Secretary-General of SAARC also joined in but did not speak.
PM Modi also highlighted the steps taken by India to combat the virus.
"We started screening people entering India from mid-January itself, while gradually increasing restrictions on travel," PM Modi said.
The step-by-step approach helped avoid panic and India made special efforts to reach out to vulnerable groups, he said.
India also responded to the call of its people abroad and evacuated nearly 1,400 Indians from different countries, he said.
PM Modi also said India helped some citizens of neighbouring countries by evacuating them from coronavirus-hit nations.
Maldivian President Solih backed a coordinated approach to deal with COVID-19, asserting that no country can deal with the situation alone.
Lankan President Rajapaksa said SAARC leaders should formulate a mechanism to help the economies of the region to tide over problems posed by coronavirus.
He also proposed setting up a SAARC ministerial-level group to deal with issues related to coronavirus.
Sheikh Hasina hailed PM Modi's suggestions to deal with the pandemic and called for taking the initiative forward by more such video conferences, including one with health ministers of SAARC nations participating.
"Our collective efforts will help us devise a sound and robust strategy for SAARC region to fight coronavirus," Nepal PM Oli said.
Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering said that it was important for all countries of the region to be on same page to combat coronavirus.
Mr Mirza, in his initial remarks, said no nation can afford to be unresponsive to the situation in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
"We share common regional concerns on COVID-19. While hoping for the best, we have to prepare for the worst," the Pakistan PM's Special Assistant on Health said.
PM Modi had on Friday proposed formulation of a joint strategy by the SAARC nations to fight coronavirus, a suggestion that was backed by all the member states.
Calling on the SAARC nations to set an example for the world, PM Modi had reached out to the eight-member regional grouping and pitched for a video conference among its leaders to chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus, which has killed more than 6,000 people globally.
His appeal got a prompt response from Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister Oli, Bhutanese premier Tshering, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina and the Afghan government, all of whom welcomed the proposal.
Pakistan's response to the proposal came in after the rest, with the country's Foreign Office Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui saying Mr Mirza will be available to participate in the video conference.
India (107 patients) and Pakistan (52) have reported most of the coronavirus cases among SAARC countries.
Asked whether the video conference was indicative of possible revival of SAARC process, government sources said it is too premature to talk in those terms.