Amidst its own tensions with India and the month-long standoff between India and China at the Line of Actual Control, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli has decided not to accept medical teams from either New Delhi or Beijing, an official of the ruling Nepal Communist Party told The Hindu. As cases of coronavirus increase in countries across South Asia and some of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, both India and China are pressing ahead with medical supplies, including medicines and protective gear, as well as offers of medical teams to be stationed there.
“Nepal is happy to welcome medical materials from our friends,” said Bishnu Rijal, Deputy Chief of the NCP’s Foreign Affairs department. “But our health professionals are capable to handle the pandemic. We need medical materials now, not medical practitioners,” he added.
The decision comes on the heels of an offer of a PLA medical team that was made during a conversation between Mr. Oli and a Chinese Communist Party official, that The Hindu had reported on. In March, the Indian Army, which has a special relationship with the Nepali Army, had also offered to send a medical team to Nepal as a part of its outreach in the neighbourhood. However, it is understood that after considering both offers, the Nepal government decided it would be better not to accept either, especially after some criticism from the opposition Nepali Congress party over the possibility of Chinese military teams in Nepal.
India and China have also made rival offers of aid in other parts of the region, which has seen a slower rise in infections, but is now catching up with other regions in terms of numbers. With nearly 6,00,000 cases now the eight SAARC countries (India, Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan) account for about 7.5% of the world total of 7.9 million COVID-19 cases, and about 3% of global coronavirus deaths.
According to its “Health Silk Road” initiative, China has sent 29 medical expert teams to 27 countries, including military medical teams to Pakistan, Laos and Myanmar, while India has intensified its offers in the SAARC region (minus Pakistan) and the IOR, deploying aid by Air India flights as well as by the Indian Naval Ship ‘Kesari’ and sending teams as well.
Last week, a Chinese medical team flew into Dhaka to help train professionals with the coronavirus pandemic. When asked, Bangladesh’s Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam said despite the “politics” between India and China, Bangladesh was open to help that it needed from both, during the pandemic.
“We enjoy a friendly relationship with China, and the relationship with India is so historic, of a different level and magnitude altogether, so it isn’t comparable. We invited a team of about a dozen medical professionals from China who will stay about two weeks and have met with our medical professionals,” Mr. Alam said in response to a question from The Hindu during a webinar on South Asian COVID-19 responses, organised by the Delhi-based India Foundation.
India has thus far sent medical teams to the Maldives, Mauritius, Comoros, and Kuwait, and the Army had prepared “Rapid Response Teams” (RRTs) and five naval ships “on standby for deployment” to Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as well in March this year. However, possibly given the political complications attached to suggestions of Indian ‘boots on the ground’, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan denied discussing any military deployment.
In the Maldives, an Army team of six doctors and eight paramedical personnel were deployed to set up quarantine and testing facilities, and India flew a team of 15 doctors and paramedics to Kuwait to help manage the coronavirus spread there, which included many patients of Indian origin as well.
The deployment to the Comoros and Mauritius, part of “Mission Sagar”, was particularly “historic,” said diplomats, as it unveiled new Indian capabilities in parts of the IOR that other countries had not developed. For the past months, two 14-member Indian Navy medical teams have been stationed in Mauritius and Comoros, where they toured local hospitals, trained personnel and assisted in COVID-19 management techniques, the Ministry of Defence said on Sunday.
Officials said the PLA-Navy has not made inroads into the IOR with its COVID-19 response at present, but the Chinese government and private organisations like the Jack Ma foundation in the region have donated large quantities of medical supplies.