“Fighting Covid-19 requires empathy and cooperation”-South Asia Peace Action Network
This story first appeared in The Daily Observer
I was privileged to join an online gathering on Sunday 25th April 2021, as dozens of South Asians came together to express grief and solidarity amidst the suffering inflicted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
The online event was organised by the recently launched South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN), which seeks to complement other organizations working to bring peace in South Asia. According to the objectives of SAPAN, a great volume of pain and suffering could be mitigated through greater socio-economic cooperation, resource-sharing, and a visa-free South Asia, a region with soft borders reflecting the shared history and inter-connected space.
Pivoting from the original discussion titled ‘Khelne Do (Play for Peace) – Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’, top sports personalities, journalists and activists instead shared thoughts and experiences in a moving expression of regional solidarity as the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic hit India grievously. Each participant including me, extended our sincerest compassion as India is going through a terrible situation.
The focus of the Sunday event, originally planned as a call to open sporting ties and visas in the South Asia, was changed at the last minute due to the dire situation on the ground in India where a mounting daily death toll and rising infection rates are stretching health facilities, crematoriums and burial grounds beyond capacity. Such gesture of changing the focus from sports to compassion shows how empathy and co-operation between countries in South Asian region matter for fighting COVID-19, the global pandemic that has evolved into an economic and a ‘human crisis,’ of mammoth proportions.
The event was the first of a series of monthly discussions being curated by a coalition of individuals and organisations joining hands to take forward the principles and ideals of peace, justice, democracy and human rights in South Asia as championed by the late I.A Rehman, Asma Jahangir, Dr Mubashir Hasan, Nikhil Chakravartty, Nirmala Deshpande, Kuldip Nayar, Rajni Kothari and others.
Other participants at the meeting included Kathmandu-based journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, environmental, peace and rights activist Lalita Ramdas and former Indian Navy chief R. Ramdas in Alibag village, south of Mumbai, former Planning Commission member Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi, Lahore-based artists Salima Hashmi, Dhaka-based activists Khushi Kabir, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai from Delhi, Boston-based journalist Beena Sarwar from Karachi, former Pakistani test cricketer Jalaluddin, international squash player Nooreena Shams and sports journalists Afia Salam in Karachi and Zainab Abbas in Lahore.
Some of the participants shared their experience of personal loss over the past 24 hours. Prominent educationist Baela Jamil had to leave the programme as news came in about a cousin’s death in Lahore. Eminent sports journalist Sharda Ugra lost a friend in Mumbai that morning, prominent photojournalist Vivek Bendre. Two prominent peace activists also passed away that morning in India.
During the discussion, an emotional moment came when one of the participants – a long time human rights and peace activist in Karachi Karamat Ali revealed his personal pain. His wife was visiting Delhi and was down with Covid-19 infection, but visa restrictions did not allow him to visit her.”I want to go to the Wagah border and take a tank of oxygen to my wife, but I can’t,” said Ali, his voice choking. He said he wanted to also take a defibrillator and whatever medical supplies he could carry. His story illustrates the anguish of divided families unable to help loved ones across the border.The frustration is compounded as citizens above the age of 65 are entitled to visa-on-arrival at the border, according to the 2012 agreement signed by India and Pakistan, but unfortunately ignored by both sides.
The concern expressed by most of the participants was how the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have ravaged South Asia. However, there is yet a ray of hope as South Asian countries have the capacity to tackle many of their common problems by neutral co-operation and also by developing stronger institutional arrangements.
It was very exciting to witness experts from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh conversing on ideas of appreciation and collaboration from ONE platform. It will be quite interesting to join the discussion originally planned – on “Sporting Ties”, when held at a later date once the pandemic is less threatening or under control. Sports is a compelling tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding��bringing people together across boundaries, culture and religion. We can easily see how Cricket, the most popular of all sports has provided a global forum for India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to demonstrate talent and spirit. Its values – such as team work, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and could be utilized in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion.
Needless to say, regional alliance carries crucial importance because South Asia plays a vital role in the current world – Geo-strategically and Geo-economically!
The writer is a Freelance Communications Consultant