As the world continues to battle the deadly coronavirus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday addressed the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation leaders via video conference on devising new methods to contain the pandemic.

The online summit took place after PM Modi proposed to have the meeting as he tweeted on Friday. Pakistan also agreed to the proposal on Friday, however the meeting was attended by Special Assisstant to PM Imran Khan on health Dr Zafar Mirza.

Apart from Modi, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, Bhutanese premier Lotay Tshering, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Special Assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister on Health Zafar Mirza participated in the video conference.

The summit commenced at 5pm on Sunday as PM Modi opened the floor for discussion as he said “prepare, but don’t panic” had been India’s guiding mantra in dealing with coronavirus outbreak.

“We started screening people entering India from mid-January itself, while gradually increasing restrictions on travel. A step-by-step approach helped avoid panic and India made special efforts to reach out to vulnerable groups,” PM Modi said.

“Our region has reported less than 150 coronavirus cases but we need to remain vigilant. I propose we create a COVID-19 emergency fund. This could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us. India can start with an initial offer of $10 million for this fund,” PM Modi said.

PM Modi also informed the SAARC leaders that India had set up an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal (IDSP) to trace possible virus carriers and their primary contacts. “We could share this Disease Surveillance software with SAARC partners and training them using this,” PM Modi said.

“Looking ahead, we could create a common research platform, to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within our South Asian region. The Indian Council of Medical Research can offer help coordinating such an exercise,” he said at the summit.

PM Modi’s address was followed by Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani who urged all SAARC nations to create a common framework for “telemedicine” to combat coronavirus. President Ghani said sealing borders would cause a significant problem regarding the availability of food, medicines and basic goods.

“Since India is both a very important member of SAARC and a member of Shanghai Cooperation, it can coordinate between SAARC and Shanghai Cooperation and share how much experience of China is replicable to our situation and how do we learn from their experience,” Ghani said.

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih expressed his gratitude to India for assistance in bringing back Maldivian nationals who were stranded in China, and said, “No country on its own can succeed in combating the virus.”

“The Maldives is fortunate to have received general assistance from India and I convey my government’s appreciation to PM Modi and people of India,” he said.

Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the country’s economy had taken a serious blow after last year’s Easter attack that rocked parts of the country. “SAARC leaders should formulate a mechanism for our economies to tide over problems posed by coronavirus,” he said.

“I thank PM Narendra Modi for initiating this to share our experiences, ideas, best practices and to understand the challenges & discuss measures to be taken,” Rajapaksa said.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina thanked PM Modi for evacuating 23 students of the country from Wuhan along with Indian students. She also proposed that Health Ministers of SAARC nations could hold a similar video conference to discuss specific issues related to COVID-19.

“To continue this dialogue at a technical level, our Health Ministers, Health Secretaries, and health experts should also hold this kind of video conferences to discuss specific areas of cooperation,” she said.

Special Assistant to the Pakistan PM on Health Zafar Mirza said no nation could afford to be unresponsive to the situation in wake of coronavirus outbreak.

“Pakistan shares common concern over the potential of COVID-19 affecting South Asia. All our countries have confirmed cases. There is no room for any complacency. While hoping for the best we have to be prepared for the worst,” he said.

“With over 155,000 infections, 5833 deaths and 138 countries involved, no nation and no region on Earth can afford to be unresponsive,” Mirza said.

The Pakistan official also demanded that restrictions be lifted in Kashmir in the light of two coronavirus cases being reported from the Union Territory. “It is a matter of concern that COVID-19 has been reported from Jammu and Kashmir and in view of a health emergency, it is imperative that all lockdown in the territory must be lifted immediately,” he said.

Among the eight SAARC nations, India has so far recorded 107 cases followed by Pakistan (20), Maldives (8), Afghanistan (7), Bangladesh (3), Sri Lanka (2), and Nepal and Bhutan (1 each).