Pandemic-hit South Asia must evolve a coordinated strategy to improve public health systems

Collectively the peacebuilders, physicians and public-health activists from across South Asia noted that inequity is the key challenge and asked their governments to address it properly so that the lessons of the past year are not forgotten, writes Rida Anwar for South Asia Monitor

Rida Anwar Jul 17, 2021
South Asian Peace Network (SAPAN)

In today’s globalized world, regionalism is becoming the strength of nations sharing common history, experiences and traditions to some extent. South Asia is the perfect example where all the countries have been through it all.

To bring collective harmony and peace among the nations, a group of journalists and activists from the region have recently started the South Asian Peace Network (SAPAN). In their latest effort at bringing the nations together, a webinar - the third of a series of such monthly events - “Imagine! Neighbors in Peace and Health” was conducted that had speakers from across South Asia. The focus of the talk was on the Covid-19 pandemic and ‘health care for all.

The SAPAN Charter and vision document, which was shared at the webinar, portrays it as a coalition of individuals and organizations aiming to take forward a peace agenda for the region, building on the work done by mentors and leaders over the past few decades.

Beena Sarwar; SAPAN founder and curator, related the story of the network and her vision for an inter-generational, multi-sectoral, inter-and intra-regional coalition of individuals and organizations coming together in a broad consensus for a one-point agenda - peace.

The event included prominent physicians like Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr. Anup Subedee, Dr. Vandana Prasad, and Dr. Hamid Jafari. Among the speakers - drawn from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal - were Salima Hashmi, Khushi Kabir, Kanak Mani Dixit, Lalita Ramdas, as also journalists Beena Sarwar, Mandira Nayar and others. Activist Priyanka Singh moderated the event.

Region fighting the same virus

The diverse range of experiences of the speakers and their suggestions towards finding a solution to the crisis triggered by the Covid pandemic in the region was highly enlightening. The webinar took place at a time when a few countries in South Asia are under a strict lockdown. The entire region is fighting the same battle, fighting the same virus and trying to adjust to the new normal for the past year and a half now. Therefore, Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, renowned public health activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee from Bangladesh, seemed to have said it all when he pointed out: “South Asian countries cannot do it alone, that’s irrational.’’

The webinar focused on health as an entry point to talk about South Asian regionalism and healthcare for all. Three main aspects deliberated upon were how the rural areas of South Asian countries were majorly affected, hurdles in treatment, and access — or lack thereof — to vaccinations; how Covid-19 has affected mental health, women - particularly women in rural areas of all the countries of the region; and how the issue is the same and requires the same solutions across South Asia.

Speaking at the event, Dr. Vandana Prasad, a community pediatrician and public health professional from India, highlighted the issue of vaccine politics. She said intra-country vaccine politics has made vaccines harder for minority groups and those belonging to states that are run by parties opposed to the federal dispensation.

Stressing upon the gender dimension seen during the pandemic, she said all the issues being raised now during the tragic escalation of the second wave of virus in India have been long-standing.

“In our country, if you are poor, or if you live in a rural area, or work in the informal sector, or if you are a woman, chances are you would have been devastated by the pandemic,” she said, citing the rise in unemployment and food insecurity for these populations.

"Peace is natural, conflict an aberration'

According to Salima Hashmi, an artist and an educator from Pakistan, the people of South Asia have got accustomed to living in a state of “aggressive limbo” for decades. “We have come to believe that this (aggression) is the natural order of things, more so for our younger generation, who have known no other state of affairs. We need to convince them that it is peace that is the natural state of things and this state of conflict is the aberration.”

Dr. Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication at the World Health Organization, agreed that the pandemic has been a tremendous public-health challenge that has highlighted socio-economic disparity and inequity.

“The outbreak has had a devastating impact on lives and livelihoods of the underprivileged directly and indirectly due to their physical and economic vulnerabilities. There has to be a concerted effort by the public and private sector to invest more in public health systems,” he asserted. According to Dr. Jafri, building resilience in the most vulnerable communities was of prime importance during any epidemic or pandemic.

Collectively the peacebuilders, physicians and public-health activists from across South Asia noted that inequity is the key challenge and asked their governments to address it properly so that the lessons of the past year are not forgotten.

Increasing health budgets   

The doctors at the webinar called on governments to allow the free flow of critical equipment and medical personnel across the borders. In February this year, there was general agreement when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi floated the idea of SAARC medical visas for patients and medical teams to assist during the pandemic. The suggestion needs to be followed upon.

While suggesting the solutions to the issue, the participants called for slowly increasing the health budget in every country. Salima Hashmi rightly said that people-to-people initiatives such as these “are among the simplest and most inspiring things we can do” towards the cause of peace.

To quote Dr. Zafarrullah: “If we are together, we think together. These are issues of every country”. The event came to an end with a beautiful speech by the founding member of SAPAN, Lalita Ramdas of India, who invited one and all to think and share solutions to enable the nations to work towards furthering harmony and regional connectivity for a better tomorrow.

(The writer is a researcher and a student of International Relations from Pakistan volunteering with the South Asia Peace Action Network – SAPAN. The views expressed are personal. She tweets @RidaAnwaar)