Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | What went wrong with India’s vaccine diplomacy?

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | What went wrong with India’s vaccine diplomacy?

Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar discusses what led to the country’s current vaccine crisis

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a look at India’s vaccine diplomacy and why the government is now facing criticism for it.

In the Second Wave, India’s growing coronavirus deaths have taken the sheen of the government’s diplomacy during the COVID-era. With more than three lakh new cases a day, India is the country with the biggest surge at present. But in the past year, it has also been the country with the biggest heart: lifting its ban on exports of the drug HCQ, when there was demand for it, sending medical teams to countries in the neighbourhood, and then for its massive Vaccine Maitri programme, under which India exported more than 66 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 95 countries worldwide. Of these about 10 million were grants from the government, 20 million were sent as part of the global COVAX facility, and the rest 36 million were commercial exports.   

Few other countries have done as much: China has exported 80 million doses to about 60 countries, but only after it managed its own internal COVID-19 crisis. The European Union (EU) has exported 113.5 million doses to 43 countries, but the EU is made up of 27 countries. 

India is also at the forefront of multilateral diplomacy efforts, including the Quad plan for production of one billion vaccines to be offered to South East Asian countries, and the India-South Africa effort at the WTO to have all vaccine patents (TRIPs) waived for the coronavirus pandemic duration 

Finally, India, which is the second worst affected country’s efforts, are in sharp contrast to the worst affected United States, which has through the use of executive orders and its Defense Production Act, made domestic production and use of COVID-19 vaccines and pharma supplies its priority, refusing exports at present. Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue last week, PM Modi said that India has “walked the talk” on the global COVID-19 effort, pointing to other countries that haven’t. 

So why is the government now facing criticism for its diplomacy? 

Firstly, for not anticipating the current crisis and sending out the wrong  message internationally that India had defeated the coronavirus — on January 29th, during his speech at the Davos forum, PM Modi said that the country had won the war on COVID-19, something he repeated in Parliament a week later, and India won acclaim from around the world. At the time, India was seeing about 11,000 new cases a day nationwide and 1.5 lakh active cases. Today that number has grown to 3 lakh new cases and 24 lakh active cases on an upward trend.  

Secondly, a lack of awareness of the problem was most obvious in the international visits that were planned during this period — visits to India by Rwanda President Kagame, Danish PM Frederiksen, UK PM Johnson, Japanese PM Suga, all of which have had to be cancelled. PM Modi did travel to Bangladesh, along with his campaign travel in March, and had visits planned to Porto in Portugal for an EU-India leaders meeting and France in the first week of May, but that has also been cancelled now.  

Thirdly, for not leveraging its strengths over the past few weeks to ramp up hospital bed strength, pharma supplies and oxygen production through imports and for not halting those exports like pharmaceuticals and oxygen, that were needed the most. 

Fourthly, for starting the Vaccine Maitri programme at exactly the same time as the domestic vaccination programme began, without properly estimating the need or the urgency of vaccinating the whole population. While a case must be made for vaccines for the immediate South Asian neighbourhood, as a pandemic in any neighbouring country will necessarily impact India, but the criticism is about assisting countries farther afield, when they could have been used in India. A majority of those were shipped out through February and March, and the last shipments headed abroad, according to MEA figures, went on April 16 to Albania and Syria.  

In all, 66 million vaccine doses were exported, while India’s entire vaccine programme over three months from mid-January to mid-April has given 130 million doses. This means that at the very least, India exported what could have been used for a month of vaccinations domestically. What this has also meant is that, as the government has declared vaccines for all over 18 years to be opened up from May 1, that India has gone from being a vaccine exporter, to needing vaccine imports, including the Russian Sputnik vaccine, U.S. developed Johnson and Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer and others.  

The government’s defence, expressed by EAM S. Jaishankar this week is simple — India cannot ask the world for help, for vaccine supplies if it is not willing to export its own product to help others. “If you get into this, why are you exporting at all, then someone else will ask why am I exporting to India and that is so short sighted. Only really irresponsible, really non serious people will make that argument,” Dr. Jaishankar said, speaking at a business chamber event. 

The answer to that might well be- India is the world’s second most populous country, and after the U.S., has the highest number of cases, active cases and deaths. If it helps its own citizens, it will take a large load off the global pandemic worry. The U.S. State Department’s response, when asked why it wasn’t clearing exports of vaccine ingredients to India and excess vaccines, was that it is “not only in [America’s] interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.” The same should be true for India and Indians. 

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