January 28, 2023

Vaccine Diplomacy in Reverse

Global challenges need global effort, enterprise and exceptional collaboration as we are in it together.
Keywords: Vaccine | Diplomacy | Covid | China | US | EU | Contingency | Health | Social Media | Biden | Strategic | Comprehensive | Partnership | Challenge | Assistance
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Is the vaccine against the Corona virus pandemic a global good or not? – a question that needs to be answered by all Governments and individuals alike!. Political expediency and domestic considerations will always be a factor to reckon with. But it is also a double-edged weapon as like Climate Change or Terrorism the pandemic knows no boundaries. After all, the virus seems to have come from Wuhan. The world is not an oyster nor are countries exclusive impenetrable islands. Whether we like it, or not global challenges need global effort, enterprise and exceptional collaboration as we are in it together. But it is also a reality that often parochial, myopic and intrinsically expedient even if selfish behaviour on part of some states is not uncommon. This has been witnessed among many powerful countries as well as in the inter-state insensitivities within India itself. 

In recent days what the US did and displayed initial apathy to Indian Covid plight gave enough fodder to the Twitterati and media and experts of all kinds. The commentary was terse. Course Correction was done by the Biden Administration but by then the basic foundations of the Indo-US ties were questioned. No-fault of Indians of course because we tend to put great premium in Bhai-Bhai business and feel that ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam’ is also a universally applicable tenet. All the same, one can not fault ordinary citizens, let alone the strategic community, when they begin to wonder as to what is the point in having a comprehensive global strategic partnership with a country when it only thinks for itself even at your expense.

India has been going through the worst phase of its Covid crisis with over three lakh cases a day -the highest per diem in the world. A numero uno position it wished it would not be in. The government and the system are being questioned following the ongoing elections and rallies galore but also for not even stopping the famous Kumbh Mela which had the greatest potential of violating the covid protocols and surely could become the Maha spreader events. Authorities have been called out for these wilful acts of omission and commission, and for lack of preparedness to cope up with the second or third wave that has invariably happened elsewhere. Why did we not prepare well was beyond comprehension? The Madras High Court even spoke of charging the Election Commission with murder. Well, common sense is mostly uncommon and we as citizens are no exception and the people in the government are mere extensions of that phenomenon– although one hoped it to be an enlightened one.  

As our own resources and capacities to cope with Covid became insufficient and reportage of public furore due to extensive infections and insufficient availability of treatment became louder, the international community was approached for assistance. Many rose to the occasion on their own. But some like the USA vacillated, putting “America First” as the sole yardstick. A tweet from the CEO of the Serum Institute of India beseeching the US President to release the supplies of critical ingredients for his Astra Zeneca vaccines triggered the public outcry and debate over lack of benevolence on the part of the alleged hyperpower. The Indian Government was also accused of squandering its advantage by indulging in international vaccine exportation without ascertaining full facts objectively. Charity begins at home became the buzzword for the critics. Nothing can be farther than the truth if you put 2+2 together. What goes out comes back. 

Over a dozen countries from Singapore to Saudi Arabia and the UK, France and Germany to Bhutan – let alone China, Russia, Australia, and many others – have committed emergency supplies to India. The EU has also activated its Civil protection emergency mechanism. It was only that some social media fireworks and hectic diplomacy by the USA provided ammunition to the soothsayers with hindsight. All is well that ends well. However, what is most important will be the coordination, efficiency, and speed of execution on our part so that the help reaches the needy irrespective of which state or district they are located in. Amidst all this, it should also be seen as a wake-up call that Health has to be given the utmost priority so that external dependence is significantly reduced. We cannot wait for a crisis to unfold to wake us up time and again.

President Biden spoke to PM Modi (26 April) and tweeted “Today, I spoke with PM Modi and pledged America’s full support to provide emergency assistance and resources in the fight against Covid-19. India was there for us and we will be there for them”. Prior to that Secretary Blinken, NSA Jake Sullivan, Defence Secretary Austin spoke to their Indian counterparts reconfirming commitments as well as striving to retrieve the lost optics. They have started working on a war footing to deploy and provide resources and raw materials as public sympathy for India has ballooned. 

More importantly, major US MNCs like Google and Microsoft and many others have extended a helping hand too. Sixty million doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine doses stored in the US will be released. Helping India will also help the US and other countries given its large market size and interdependent supply chains. These are mutually sustainable efforts. As the WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tweeted “Thanks to @wto members coming to India’s assistance. India unselfishly exported over 40% of her vaccines. Timely for India to get this help”. It is to be hoped that the US will agree to support a temporary waiver of IPRs for its vaccines at the Indian initiative at WTO so that more needy and disadvantaged countries could be helped.  

India’s benevolent approach to foreign policy has come under criticism as it supplied sixty-five million doses of Covid vaccines to 95 countries and earlier medicines and other relevant assistance to over 150 countries. Any logical analysis would confirm that early on surplus supplies to the needy countries on a commercial, contractual or grant basis has gained her immense respect and an edge when other countries are trying to hoard, encash or simply being selfish. Yet this policy has not been at the expense of India’s own requirements. 

Critical time and focus were frittered away after the first wave when we could have done much more on a war footing to continue to build our critical infrastructure and essential supplies in view of the fact that the numbers in our case are immense. Shortage of oxygen or medicines or vaccines are not justifiable by any stretch of the imagination when we call ourselves the Pharmacy of the World or Global Vaccine Hub. Moreover, for the success of cooperative federalism, a strong and impartial Centre and an efficient administrative mechanism and smooth machinery are required to prevent States from hoarding essentials and denying emergency treatment to Indians from any part of the nation. A holistic contingency-based comprehensive approach may yield the dividend that we all are looking for. 

I am of the view that India stands tall in the comity of nations because of her ideals and principles according to which the World is one family – It is a distinguishing trait of a Great Power and we must recognise and relish it while addressing our domestic management constraints.

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Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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