Pakistan, India and Covid diplomacy – a chance for peace?

Frank F Islam

The World Health Organisation has reported that India is home to approximately 50 percent of all new Covid-19 cases, globally. In real terms, this means 19 million positive cases and 210,000 deaths, by May 1. As the second wave intensified, daily infections topped 300,000 for ten consecutive days and now exceeds 400,000 per day. This has pushed the Indian healthcare system to the brink of collapse.

The United States and many other countries have come forward to assist the world’s largest democracy by providing material for vaccines, therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment, oxygen and various medicines. Pakistan and its people have also reached out with compassion to their eastern neighbour.

Towards the end of last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his sympathy with the following tweet: “I want to express our solidarity with the people of India as they battle a dangerous wave of COVID-19. Our prayers for a speedy recovery go to all those suffering from the pandemic in our neighbourhood & the world. We must fight this global challenge confronting humanity together.”

Khan did not tweet in isolation. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis followed suit; from journalists to showbiz stars, from political activists to social workers. This show of solidarity has come from Pakistanis of all walks of life wishing to play some part in alleviating the pain of their fellow Indian brethren.

This could be a pivotal moment – tens of thousands of Pakistanis and Indians exchanging positive messages on social media – and one which the leadership of both countries could seize

“PakistanStandsWithIndia” is a top trending hashtag. This has not gone unnoticed across the border with Indian channel News18 reporting: “In a sense of solidarity, netizens in Pakistan have also reached out to their Indian counterparts offering prayers and good wishes for coming out of the crazy blow of the Covid-19 second wave.”

Pakistanis have offered more than words of concern. In a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Faisal Edhi – son of Abdul Sattar Edhi, the legendary humanist and philanthropist – offered to provide assistance to New Delhi on behalf of the Edhi Foundation. He said he was ready to lead a humanitarian effort with his medical technicians, 50 ambulances, drivers, and helpers in whichever city the Indian government would permit.

Faisal Edhi was offering what I call purposeful philanthropy.

As I have said in the past, an international interconnected philanthropic network (IIPN) dedicated to developing a collaborative and coordinated response to the pandemic at the global level remains key to tackling this crisis. The IIPN’s purpose would be to develop strategies and approaches to address the root causes of Covid,, while containing future pandemics, and helping nations cope with the fallout moving forward.

Last year I wrote that: “The IIPN could combat this by developing the framework to connect three dots to allow stakeholders to maximise their investments in critical pivot point areas – areas that can be leveraged and addressed most effectively to reverse the downward trajectory caused by the pandemic. Those three dots are: planning; revitalisation models; and financial support.”

As this unprecedented pandemic continues to persist much longer and with graver consequences than almost anyone predicted, an IIPN seems more relevant and necessary now than ever. An IIPN could produce a short-term Covid-19 recovery plan and a longer-term healthcare and economic system development plan.

Every nation needs these plans – no matter whether the US or India; the latter has already been stretched to the limit and beyond to just respond to the spread of this virus on a daily basis. In this context, any purposeful philanthropic effort from the Pakistani side towards India should be appreciated – though it is up to the authorities in New Delhi to see its importance and feasibility.

Last month, the world saw a glimmer of hope for peace between India and Pakistan. This was precipitated by reports that the UAE had helped to broker the recent India-Pakistan Kashmir border ceasefire and the outlines of a roadmap to peace between these two nuclear-armed south Asian neighbours.

The roadmap represents the starting line and frame of reference. And, it is a useful one for moving away from the most recent intractability.

As I wrote in my previous article, “If Pakistan and India initiate meaningful peace talks, this could be beneficial to the entire region. It could shift the dynamics from a focus on defence and the military to a focus on human interest and health concerns”.

This could be a pivotal moment – tens of thousands of Pakistanis and Indians exchanging positive messages on social media – and one which the leadership of both countries could seize. Tragedy has softened hearts and opened new avenues for people-to-people exchange among citizens from various walks of life in both nations.

This moment could be built upon – given the necessary security and healthcare precautions from both sides – in the short-term by promoting small collaborative goodwill gestures between India and Pakistan. These could include: granting permission for religious tourists to visit the Kartarpur Gurdwara; convening Indian and Pakistani health professionals to discuss post-Covid health scenario; and boosting people-to- people ties by allowing the cricket teams of both countries to play against each other.

After that could come engagement of the appropriate and duly designated representatives from both countries to advance discussions of peace between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Ultimately, the leaders of Pakistan and India will determine which course to follow. They will decide whether this is the time to focus on coming together to set a new agenda to address prevailing health, social and economic concerns of the two nations.

One might think that this is impossible. I do not share that pessimistic view.

It has been said that necessity is the stepmother of invention. This is a time of great necessity. It is the time to reinvent the bilateral relationship. Pakistan’s reaching out its hand and heart to India could provide the basis for launching that process.

This is my cautiously optimistic perspective. — Courtesy Daily Times

The writer is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC

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