South Asia needs more collaboration on health

Stressing upon the “spirit of collaboration” among the SAARC and Indian Ocean island countries, the Indian Prime Minister recently spoke of the need to build a regional platform to understand the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines as well as steps to tackle health emergencies in jointly and in a coordinated manner. Notably, not only is South Asia the only region in the world which lacks a regional disease surveillance and health network, its countries also fare poorly on Global Health Security Index parameters. We have already witnessed the benefit of regional cooperation among the SAARC countries in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in areas such as supply of Covid-19 vaccine, medicines and equipment (PPEs, testing kits) in response to the pandemic, mainly benefiting Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan. Pakistan stands to gain by accessing 7 million India-made Covid-19 vaccine doses through the GAVI-led Covax program.

As the experience of MERS, SARS and Covid-19 has shown, a local epidemic requires only a few weeks to turn into a global pandemic. Given the strong cultural and economic linkages among the SAARC countries, any epidemic or pandemic will affect cross-border trade, tourism (including medical tourism) and people-to-people exchanges. The development of a SAARC-wide disease surveillance and health network will identify and curb the outbreak of an epidemic. We will, perhaps, not witness the kind of trade stoppages and delays witnessed at land border points and ports in the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic. Such delays, ironically, affected even essentials such as food items and medical supplies.

International institutions such as WHO, ADB and the World Bank can play an effective role in both bringing in requisite expertise as well as international experience to develop such a regional health network. An early start in this direction was made through the One Health Network South Asia beginning 2010. But the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that much more needs to be done, quickly and more effectively. The South Asian countries need to collaborate on future emerging infectious disease surveillance, and coordinated response and preparedness at the regional level through multisectoral collaboration across agriculture, environment, water and sanitation, human health, etc. given the zoonotic nature of the last several pandemics. It may be prudent to establish a South Asia Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which could network with national level apex health organizations. With due apologies to Martin Luther King Jr., “disease outbreak anywhere is a threat to people and economies everywhere”.

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Sanjay Gupta

Strategy and Policy Advisor: Water and Sanitation, Climate Change, Gender, Water Diplomacy