By Dr Arun Mitra
Harbouring nearly one-fourth of the world’s population in 3.5 per cent of the land surface area of the earth, South Asia is confronted with serious issues of health and development. These have been increasing due to persistent tension as well as internal and external conflicts and wasteful expenditure on ever increasing arms race, which is divesting the region of resources required for growth. Health indices of the region are very poor as is reflected in the Human Development Index report released by the UN from time to time. Out of 189 countries, South Asia ranking is India 131, Pakistan 154, Bangladesh 133, Nepal 142 and Sri Lanka 72. Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, maternal and child deaths are quite high. Whereas poverty, social disparities, and marginalisation lead to poor health, this in turn adds to poverty thus causing a vicious circle.
The main contention in the region even after 75 years of ousting the British imperialism lies between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought four wars. There is excess spending on the military, which ranges from 14 to 18 per cent of the government’s budget. Possession of nuclear arms by these two countries has further accentuated the enormity of the situation. Maintaining nuclear arsenals and its delivery system causes huge amounts to both India and Pakistan. In addition these pose constant threat to life in the sub-continent. The region has been the centre of various communicable and non-communicable diseases. But the COVID pandemic has exposed the hollowness and vulnerability of our healthcare systems.
Under such circumstances it is important for the countries of South Asia to collaborate with each other in containing the impact of COVID 19 and planning a long term strategy to jointly sort out healthcare issues by learning through each other’s experience. Basic determinants of health like poverty, good nutrition, employment and livelihood have to be identified and tackled. Unfortunately not much has been done in this regard. There are not many reports of data exchange on health scenario among the countries of South Asia.
The economic hardships faced by the people during the lock down have been unprecedented. We have seen large scale migration of people in India and Bangladesh. Loss of jobs and livelihood led to pressure on the food security to the people.
The opportunity has been missed but lessons must be drawn and steps taken for future. The reports of Omicron, the new variant of concern is a wakeup call. Public health experts and physicians from various streams from the countries of South Asia should organise interactive sessions among them. Such actions help in strengthening people to people relationship which forms the ultimate basis of lasting peace and harmony. Innovations of digital exchange programmes should be made use of.
Sensing the urgency of the situation a group of doctors from South Asian countries have collaborated to meet the challenge, hence spread the message of peace, disarmament, nuclear weapons free zone and diversion of wasteful expenditure on arms race to health and development. The need of the hour is to organise a digital dialogue among medics of the region to exchange information and design future tasks for betterment of health indices. There is need to rid of militarist attitude, and instead develop humanist outlook and collectively fight back fundamentalist, extremist, obscurantist and narrow nationalist ideas. SAARC should be revitalised to promote multi-sectoral technical and economic cooperation. The refusal of the vaccine manufacturing multinational corporations (MNCs) to share the technical knowhow about vaccine production had put many countries in hardship in procuring vaccines. A collaborative effort can help in meeting such needs to save the life of the people. (IPA Service)