Commonwealth lauds New Delhi's handling of COVID-19 crisis; says lot to learn from India

Written By: Sidhant Sibal WION
New Delhi Updated: May 22, 2020, 12:13 AM(IST)

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland Photograph:( WION )

Story highlights

Calling India's lockdown 'necessary' to keep people safe, Patricia Scotland pointed out that not only India looked after its own but also reached out to other countries in the region

The Commonwealth which is the third biggest organisation in the world after the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement had lauded India's handling of the COVID-19 crisis, saying there is lot to learn from India.

Speaking exclusively to Principal Diplomatic Correspondent Sidhant Sibal from London, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said, PM Modi "led from the very beginning" and "followed WHO guidelines really faithfully".

Calling India's lockdown "necessary" to keep people safe, Patricia Scotland pointed out that not only "India looked after its own but also reached out to countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles." She also talked about the "heartbreaking" Cyclone Amphan and the existential challenge of climate change.  

WION: What has been Commonwealth's response during the COVID-19 crisis. The health ministers of the Commonwealth met?

Patricia Scotland: What we know and you are right, we have 2.4 billion people in our Commonwealth and important to remember, 60 per cent of that 2.4 billion are under the age of 30.

We have a young vibrant population. Not only full of genius and opportunity and needs in terms of employability and what we have learnt after coming together, our 54 countries, is that we really need collaboration, coordination in order to support us with some of these quite existential threats which we are globally facing now, from climate change to the pandemic.

So what our health minister understand is this pandemic knows no border, it doesn't respect people or place and it reached its tentacles in all of our homes and all of our lives. The only way, we can respond effectively to this pandemic is by coming together in solidarity through government's, civil society and countries and institutions.

And that is what we in the Commonwealth are doing and that is the manifestation when we came together virtually at the world health assembly.

In preparation, we did what we always do in the Commonwealth, we did Commonwealth health ministers meeting so that we can talk amongst our members, the small ones, the large ones, the landlocked ones, the rich ones, the poor ones because in our family we are always determined to leave no one behind.

So when our family of ministers came together they were asking a number of very pertinent questions.

The first was, what do we do, what are all we facing and then they were asking how have each of us responded and what has worked, what has not worked, what do we need in terms of medicines, equipment, research and asked and shared what do we have.

Our family works on the basis that if one of us has something, we are willing to share with our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

If you look at Commonwealth health ministers statement, I believe, it is an inspirational statement of warmth, solidarity, brotherhood and a real understanding, that this pandemic will only be solved in multilateral, multifaceted and multidimensional cooperation and that is what shines out of the Commonwealth and I was so proud of the information given by every single one of our members, from Fiji in the Pacific to India in Asia.

Look at Ghana, Nigeria, UK, Canada all of us, the small island states in the Caribbean who have done such a fantastic job in keeping the virus at bay. So that collaboration was extraordinary. There was a lot of applause for what India has done, the way PM Modi has led from the very beginning.

WION: How do you see India's response and do you see it can be emulated across the Commonwealth? 

Patricia Scotland: India has done an extraordinary job. If you look at when coronavirus attacked India, it was about the same time COVID-19 hit the US.

The US has about 330 million people and India has 1.35 billion people but look at what Mr Modi did, he followed, the WHO guidelines really faithfully.

That lockdown was so necessary because if you got 1.35 billion people, your most precious essence is your people if you have health, you can have wealth, but if you have no health, your people die, how will they become healthy and wealthy.

So putting people first, it has been very difficult for India, because India is spending 4.5 billion dollars a day because of the lockdown but India has put lives of its people first.

What is the consequence and the impact of what India has done, we have in India over a lakh case in India but look at the ability of India to reduce death with just around 3,300 deaths.

Each one is a tragedy, each one devastating for the family members. But look at comparatively speaking those numbers have been contained.

We only have to look at the tragedy unfolding in other countries. We have created a Commonwealth coronavirus tracker, it is updated every 24 hours.

We have over 42,000 recoveries, and every recovery for every family is a joy.

We have learnt a lot from what India has done how India has contained it. How India which as you know is the largest producer of generic drugs in the world, how India has not only looked after its own population but how she has reached out to others in the region, the assistance that has been given to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and look at how India has reached out to Seychelles and other small states.

The money India has put into the India fund which is in the UN and the fact that India has identified $50 million out of $150 million for south-south cooperation for the Commonwealth. That leadership role has been really important and the fact India has committed 10 per cent of its GDP to help in recoveries and people who are suffering directly.

I think that has been leadership and that has been inspirational. People have been talking about that 10 per cent amounting too $256 billion, real money put into the hands of the people of India. The money going directly through the JAM trinity, the policy had been everybody has a bank account, everyone has access to an individual identifier and that everyone has a mobile and that opportunity to make sure that money is getting directly into the hands of people who need it is so important particularly for women because we know that women are the one to look after the family, to feed them and care for them.

This opportunity to give money directly to women in their hands on their phones have made an extraordinary difference, a remarkable one, giving them independence and I think that has been the single most impactful thing India has done to take millions of people out of poverty.

It has been very impressive. People are watching, people are thankful, and the Commonwealth secretariat has been privileged to work very closely to work with India on a number of our objectives. 

WION: How do u see India playing a lead role as the largest member of the grouping - both in terms of size and population?

Patricia Scotland: As you know, so many people are impressed by what India has done on Information and communications technology (ICT).

Your minister has been at the forefront of the development of mobile apps, and this interoperability between business and people and government facilitating and developing.

Minister Ravi Prasad has electrified the other members of our Commonwealth family. I remember clearly when the minister came to Sri Lanka for our law ministers meeting and the passion he had expressed on how we should have access to justice to every single person in our Commonwealth and our aspiration that we are going to link innovation and opportunity and the way in which India is trying to deliver services at one dollar per person.

If you look at our poorer countries, our developing countries, smaller countries, they fear or cannot aspire to do or replicate what the developed countries have done because of the cost. When they look at India, and the fact India is developing these things because of the huge population, she is developing these things at a scale and a cost which is accessible to so many. That brings hope.

I had a wonderful opportunity to come to India in January, talking to ministers, all of the elements and I understood India is focusing on how she can help the small, the vulnerable and the developing and I very much welcome that and I look forward to India to play a much bigger role in terms of our provision of technical assistance to our member states, this transfer of information.

People are very excited about the use of Jugaad because this is how to do, with what you have and turn it into something which is electrifying and successful by using innovation, so the work we are doing with India on small and medium-sized businesses.

The support India has given to trade facility, opportunity and all of these things are important and through the India Fund at the UN which has $50 million window for Commonwealth countries, we have been able to access to support for the Bahamas and Barbados.

Both of our small Caribbean nations, small states are anxious at this time, particularly due to climate change which is a threat to all of us. It is heartbreaking to see what has just happened in the last 24 hours as to the most terrible frightening biggest cyclone that has hit West Bengal.

And to hear what is being said by the minister, that this is the worst cyclone to hit West Bengal in living history and the damage is unthinkable and it is worst than the coronavirus.

In the Commonwealth we have been thinking about this, when I was in India we were talking about it. How we face the existential threats that comes from climate change but none of us was ready that while we face climate change issues we will simultaneously deal with a health pandemic which is equally lethal. These two things will create a financial challenge.

WION: How can Commonwealth have its own advantage to counter the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, supporting economic recovery after the crisis? 

Patricia Scotland: What we discovered in 2015 is that we have something very precious, it is the Commonwealth advantage because of our history, we speak the same language, same common law, we have same parliamentary system, similar institutions that gives us inbuilt 19 per cent advantage when it comes to trading with each other.

It is faster easier, cheaper to trade with a Commonwealth partner because of those similarities. In addition, we identified we trade 20 per cent more with each other than anyone else.

That is something we have not understood before. Up until last year, we had an opportunity to assess how much do we trade now. We trade $700 billion within the Commonwealth.

We have not really invested in that trade, we haven't supported it. So what we are now doing is how we are going to stimulate that. We hope by 2030 that can grow to $2 trillion.

We also know, when we look back in history, the financial difficulties, the crisis we had in 2008, the Commonwealth impact of coming together was very beneficial. We also know small and medium-size business is very important and we know that they are going to go through very difficult times in the next couple of years.

A number of businesses will be threatened with insolvency. We are worried about our regulatory structure and what would be necessary to ease it.

A number of member states do not have the sort of legal support they need. So all the Commonwealth countries are coming together to create a Commonwealth framework, Commonwealth best practice and we working really hard.

If we can pool the knowledge from those who have that knowledge and those who want it, no one is left behind.

India has made a real contribution. We have seen the contribution being made UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Ghana, the Caribbean, the Pacific, all of us coming together, Africa, Asia, Caribbean, the Pacific, the power of that collaboration is second to none and we in the secretariat have been trying to create a platform which will make that coordination easier.

Just as we created a collaborative partnership which we have called common sensing. Collaboration in space tech helped in identifying the terrible cyclone was on its way, we did that in Pacific when cyclone Harold hit.

We are readying ourselves, unfortunately, what common sensing data said that not only the biggest cyclone that we have seen is heading its way to India, Bangladesh but the next tragically will be the region of my birth.

Hurricanes are on the way to the Caribbean, that is our reality. We can help people to respond adequately only if all of us, all 54 continue to do what we have done in the last 70 years, and that is stick together.

I really want to thank India for its leadership, her commitment and continuity and look forward to even closer partnership in years to come so that we really benefit, the 2.4 billion people who we jointly serve. 

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