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COVID-19 Notwithstanding, ‘Free Lunches’ Are Out – OpEd

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It may have stood the test of time for more than two centuries, but seeing how things are panning out in the wake of COVID-19, the old saying about ‘adversity making strange bedfellows’ no longer seems to hold good.

Resultantly, even though various international bodies and health organisations are calling upon the global community for concerted action and world leaders are also waxing eloquent on their commitment in jointly tackling the worst pandemic in living memory, international cooperation on this account is conspicuous by its absence.

Blame game

Even though the debate on who’s responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak is immaterial at this stage, but yet the blame game between Washington and Beijing continues unabated. While speaking to Chinese official Yang Jiechi on phone, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly “stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumours, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat.”

But US President Donald Trump did just this when he referred to the COVID-19 pathogen as the “Chinese Virus” and tweeted that “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the “borders” from China – against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved.”

For its part, Beijing too is equally guilty of opting for a no-holds-barred response and hitting back in equal measure. The Chinese Ambassador to South Africa tweeted, “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone ‘made in China.’” Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, went a step further and in an obvious reference to the Military World Games held in Wuhan during October in which a large contingent of American military athletes participated, tweeted “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation.” Considering the fact that Twitter is banned in China, Zhao using it to spew anti-US vitriol demonstrates that Beijing too is on the warpath!

Petty Politicking

Schwarzman senior fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr Mira Rapp-Hooper has rightly noted that “This is one of these catastrophic, earth shattering moments that have the potential to pull two otherwise rivals (US and China) together to provide necessary leadership at a time of crisis and it appears to be pushing them even further apart.”

But the real tragedy is that notwithstanding the worldwide humanitarian crisis caused by outbreak of COVID-19, many nations have still found an opportunity push forward their own motivated political agendas and that Pakistan is one such country wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.

But the real reason why Islamabad’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak deserves mention is not because it’s unique, but since it’s an antithesis of sorts that can be most appropriately described as a case of ‘beggars being choosers.’ In an interview given to Associated Press, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan pleaded that “The world community has to think of some sort of a debt write-off for countries like us, which are very vulnerable, at least that will help us in coping with (COVID-19).”

Considering the humungous cost of fighting this pandemic as well as the associated financial implications due to prolonged lockdowns, his appeal, even though asking for too much, is still justified.

Even though Pakistan is the world’s 11th largest importer of arms, yet Khan showed no signs of embarrassment when it came to referring to Pakistan as being “very vulnerable” and pleading for debt waiver. Yet, it appears that he considered attending a video conference of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads of states called by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for jointly combating COVID-19 as something below his dignity.

Whereas Khan did nominate his Special Assistant and Minister of State for Health Dr Zafar Mirza to represent him at this video conference, it only displayed Islamabad’s lack of seriousness on this issue.

To make matters worse, Dr Mirza deeply embarrassed Pakistan and trivialising the COVID-19 pandemic by beating the Kashmir drum. Even ardent supporters of Islamabad feel that stating “In view of the health emergency it is imperative that all the restrictions in the disputed territory (Kashmir) must be lifted immediately, opening up communication and movement would facilitate dissemination of information, allow distribution of medical supplies and enable containment and relief efforts to proceed unimpeded,” was absolutely out of context and outdated as restrictions already been lifted in Kashmir.  But Mirza can’t be blamed for what his incorrect statement about Kashmir because he stated only what Khan would have told him to say.

It’s no secret that Khan was quite upset by domestic criticism of Islamabad’s failure to bring back its nationals from countries afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the appreciation being heaped on New Delhi for doing so. Therefore, could it be that Modi’s suggestion of creating a ‘COVID-19 Emergency Fund’ from voluntary contributions made by SAARC members as per their “comfort level” and his pledging an initial sum of 10 million US dollars for the same had miffed the debt-waiver seeking Khan, who’s got the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ fetish?

The international community may not have heeded Khan’s appeal for debt waiver, but based on Pakistan’s poor state of healthcare facilities, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have sanctioned Islamabad a loan totalling a whopping $ 588 million for COVID-19 emergency response and to address the socio-economic disruption associated with it. Though this loan will further aggravate the country’s already precarious economic condition, Islamabad has no other choice but to accept the same. While one does sympathise with Pakistan, but at the same time isn’t it also true that Islamabad has no one else but itself to blame for the country’s financial woes?

Tailpiece- With both the US and Russia appreciating New Delhi’s SAARC initiative to combat COVID-19 and no one sharing Islamabad’s ‘concern’ for Kashmir, Khan’s burgeoning anger and frustration can well be understood. However, rather than wasting time in crafting a riposte, he sooner he realises that in today’s world there aren’t any free lunches, the better it will it be for both him and Pakistan!

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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