Neither the leaders of India, Pakistan nor Afghanistan have shown the domestic urgency or the regional diplomacy required to tackle the spread of Covid-19.

Almost as fast as it has spread, the new coronavirus pandemic has become entwined with the divisive politics of South Asia.

The decisions taken during the crisis by the leaders of the region, which is home to roughly a quarter of the world’s population, and dangerously sandwiched between the infection hotspots of China and Iran, will undoubtedly have wider repercussions. 

The outcome depends largely on the ability of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, to set aside their differences long enough to avert a public health disaster.

It would also entail a suspension of their domestic political hostilities which, in the cases of all three leaders, were at their zenith when the Covid-19 virus arrived in the region. 

Most of all, it would require all three men to rise above their selfish ambitions and, for the time being, prioritise the well-being of the human race.

Sadly, their actions so far suggest that they are unwilling, and perhaps even incapable of answering this call for genuine leadership. 

Modi’s reaction to the crisis has been opportunistic. In response to the spread of the new coronavirus, he called a videoconference with the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to discuss a coordinated response - the right thing to do in the circumstances.

However, it quickly became apparent that Modi had a purely political agenda. He hoped that the event would help to repair India’s image, both globally and in friendly Afghanistan and Bangladesh, following his government’s enactment of an Islamophobic citizenship law and the murderous Hindutva mob attacks on Muslims that it fomented. 

Modi also calculated that the event would put Pakistan in an embarrassing spot.

Islamabad and New Delhi have not been on speaking terms, literally, since he ordered the annexation of Indian-administered Kashmir in August, further escalating tensions sparked by India’s aerial incursion into Pakistan in February last year. 

By hosting the videoconference, Modi sought to cast himself, and thus India, as the leader of the eight-nation SAARC. He knew that Pakistan would have looked petty if it refused to participate, and foresaw that Prime Minister Khan would depute a junior proxy rather than appear in person because of the tensions over Kashmir. 

As Indian commentators lauded him for availing the “opportunity” to show India’s leadership, Modi sought to capitalise on his public relations’ win by proposing a similar video conference of G-20 leaders, in a telephone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Modi’s grandstanding cannot benefit the people of SAARC much because he has rendered the organisation practically useless since assuming office in 2014 by refusing to engage with Pakistan under its auspices, despite maintaining contacts through other multilateral fora like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Instead, Modi has sought to emphasise the role of an alternative eastward-looking grouping, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which excludes Pakistan. That is why SAARC governments reached out to China, India’s arch-rival, for help, ensuring the timely delivery of medical assistance. 

On the other hand, Khan could have chosen to assume the moral high ground by personally welcoming the SAARC-based initiative on urgent humanitarian grounds. 

Even if such a response was motivated by an urge to call Modi’s bluff, Khan’s standing as a global celebrity would potentially have benefitted millions of people in South Asia and beyond. He certainly has the credentials for the job, having built his political career on an impressive fundraising campaign to build Pakistan’s first charity cancer hospital.

Unfortunately, the Khan administration’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan has been as apathetic as its diplomacy. 

Although the country’s first infections were documented on February 26, the government - by Khan’s own admission - did not treat the situation as a national emergency until the number of confirmed cases rose to 20 last week. It did not even launch the requisite public awareness campaign until after Khan and his cabinet met with the country’s powerful generals.

By then, disjointed attempts by the federal and provincial governments to prevent the spread of the disease from Iran had failed and the number of infections had begun to grow exponentially.

Khan, in his first public speech on the matter, on Tuesday told confused Pakistanis that an epidemic was inevitable, but downplayed the number of fatalities and extent of suffering that it would cause. “Don’t panic,” he urged, scaring the wits out of them.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has been conspicuous by his absence. Clearly preoccupied with preserving power after a dubious election and the US peace deal with the Taliban, his government has made no effort to reach out to his political rivals in Kabul or the Taliban to discuss coordinated action against the spread of the disease, despite the forcible repatriation of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees by Iran over the past few weeks.

Instead, the job of dealing with the outbreak has fallen to the US-led military coalition and the weak administrations of affected provinces. 

All too aware of the selfish motivations for such callousness, the US has increased pressure on Ghani to stop playing the spoiler, but he has shown no sign of relenting.

Saddled with such leaders, the people of South Asia are bound to suffer greatly as a result of such opportunism, apathy and indifference. They would be well advised to remember that depressing fact when Modi, Khan and Ghani claim victory over the virus. 

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