ISLAMABAD - South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation yesterday woke up from hibernation as coronavirus threatened the region.

A video-conference of SAARC member states was held to discuss responses to the Covid-19 outbreak. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister and Minister of State for Health, Dr Zafar Mirza represented Pakistan in the conference. Top leaders participated for their countries during the conference.

Pakistan had earlier agreed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to sit together.

Dr Mirza, while highlighting Pakistan’s approaches and responses to the pandemic, underscored that Pakistan had been engaged in containment efforts from the outset of the outbreak. Pakistan’s proactive strategy and containment efforts have been recognized and commended by the World Health Organization.

He underscored the need to empower and mandate the SAARC Secretariat to act as platform for regional efforts to combat the pandemic.

Among other measures, he proposed instituting exit screening by member states for travelers in the region, and instituting mechanisms for learning from the effective efforts of China, a SAARC Observer State, in containment and control. He reiterated Pakistan’s proposal of hosting SAARC health ministers’ conference at the earliest opportunity.

The SAARC members discussed ways to chalk out strategy to fight coronavirus.

Modi said ‘prepare, but don’t panic’ has been India’s guiding mantra in dealing with the virus outbreak. “Our region has reported less than 150 coronavirus cases, but we need to remain vigilant,” he said.

He added, “Step-by-step approach helped avoid panic, made special efforts to reach out to vulnerable groups.” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed common framework for tele-medicine to combat coronavirus.

Ghani welcomed the initiatives suggested by PM Modi and called for nations to keep an eye on the evolving situation due to coronavirus.

Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih backed coordinated approach to deal with Covid-19 and said no country can deal with the situation alone.

Ibrahim Solih welcomed suggestion of setting up a Covid-19 emergency fund.

Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said SAARC leaders should formulate mechanism for “our economies to tide over problems posed by coronavirus.”

SAARC is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia. Its member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. SAARC comprises 3 percent of the world’s area, 21 percent of the world’s population and 3.8 percent of the global economy.

SAARC was founded in Dhaka on December 8, 1985. Its secretariat was established in Kathmandu on January 16, 1987 and was inaugurated by the late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal.

India’s defiance is one of the main reasons why SAARC is not prospering. New Delhi has been opposing SAARC conference in Pakistan for years and pressing other member countries to stay away.

On his part, Prime Minister Imran Khan has expressed the hope that the hiatus created in SAARC’s continuous progression would be removed.

The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration. It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006 which was ratified by Pakistan and India years later.

SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.

Pak-India border meanwhile has been closed for all types of passengers to curb the coronavirus outbreak. The decision was made amid rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Pakistan has reported 35 coronavirus cases while India confirmed more than 100 confirmed cases. Indian state Maharashtra, is the worst affected from the virus.

However, diplomats and UN personnel having valid visas may allow through the Attari crossing point along the Pakistan-India border.

Visit to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur has also been suspended for Sikh pilgrims under the new order.

Pakistan has also closed the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib for its nationals but did not stop pilgrims from the Indian side.