PM Narendra Modi
PM Narendra Modi

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will participate in a video-conference of all the SAARC nations on Sunday to chalk out a joint strategy to fight the coronavirus outbreak that has killed over 5,000 people worldwide.

Modi 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. "Timely action for a healthier planet. Tomorrow at 5 PM, leaders of SAARC nations will discuss, via conferencing, a roadmap to fight the challenge of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. I am confident that our coming together will lead to effective outcomes and benefit our citizens," the prime minister said in a tweet on Saturday.

Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar confirmed in a tweet that Modi will lead India at the video-conference. Calling on the SAARC nations to set an example for the world, 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 5,000 people globally.

His appeal got a prompt response from Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutanese premier Lotay Tshering, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Afghan government, all of whom welcomed the proposal.

Pakistan's response to the proposal came late in the night with the country's Foreign Office Spokesperson Aisha Farooqui saying the threat of COVID-19 required coordinated efforts at global and regional levels. "We have communicated that SAPM (Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister) on Health (Zafar Mirza) will be available to participate in the video-conference of SAARC member countries on the issue," she said.

Besides Modi, leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and the special assistant to the Pakistani prime minister on Health are likely to participate in the video-conference. Modi's pitch for a joint SAARC strategy to combat coronavirus assumes significance as in the last three years, India has been distancing itself from the SAARC, citing the security challenge facing the region from terror networks based in Pakistan, which is also a member of the grouping.

In December last year, the prime minister had said India's efforts for a greater collaboration among the SAARC countries were repeatedly challenged with threats and acts of terrorism, in an oblique reference to Pakistan. The last SAARC Summit in 2014 was held in Nepal's Kathmandu, which was attended by Modi.

The 2016 SAARC Summit was to be held in Islamabad. But after a terror attack on an Indian Army camp in Jammu and Kashmir's Uri on September 18 that year, India expressed its inability to participate in the summit due to the "prevailing circumstances". The summit was called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to take part in it.

In a series of tweets on Friday, Modi said, "Our planet is battling the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. At various levels, governments and people are trying their best to combat it. South Asia, which is home to a significant number of the global population should leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy."

He further said, "I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus. 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." The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak could be characterised as pandemic.

The number of infection cases globally stood at 1,33,970, with over 5,000 deaths across 120 countries and territories. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a regional intergovernmental organisation comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

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