After initial hiccup, Indo-US partnership back on track

Policharcha.com | Updated: April 29, 2021, 2:26 IST

After initial hiccup, Indo-US partnership back on track

The second wave of Coronavirus has hit India harder than the first one, marking over 3 lakh Covid positive cases per day over the last week. The overwhelming second wave has crumbled the healthcare system of India, and has almost negated the efforts we had put in to tackle the first wave.

The last thing the Indian Government wanted in this phase of pandemic, when oxygen is a luxury to citizens of the country, is a bilateral relations hiccup with one of its strategic ally, the United States.

After the initial setback in which the White House had maintained silence over the request by Serum Institute of India to lift restrictions from the export of raw materials required to manufacture Covishield, US has decided to come to the aid of India.

At the official level, External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar had raised the matter before his US counterpart last week as the situation got out of hand in India. The Indian ambassador in Washington had also taken up the issue to lift restrictions imposed on the export of critical raw materials and equipment.

It was after a telephonic conversation between the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, and his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan that some normalcy prevailed.

“The United States is determined to help the people of India. We will continue to stand together in our shared battle against COVID-19,” Sullivan said in a tweet as the White House declared that the US will aid India in this time of need and will send supplies to India immediately.

The US has agreed to deploy not only the required raw materials for vaccine manufacturing, but also the other supplies needed for better management and protection against the disease.

Supplies worth more than $100 million will be sent to India. According to the White House, the Biden administration is shipping 1,100 cylinders, 1,700 oxygen concentrators, 1.5 crore N95 masks, around 10 lakh testing kits, and 20,000 treatment courses of Remdesivir by Thursday, and more will come in the next week.

Background

Major vaccine manufacturer of India, Serum Institute, which is manufacturing the Covishield Vaccine, import raw materials from the United States where Biden administration has curbed the export of raw materials to fulfil the domestic demand.

Last year in November, Biden was elected as the US President, whose election campaign promise was that his administration will provide as many as 100 million vaccination shots to American people in first 100 days in office.

One of the two main American Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer, Pfizer Inc. cut short its vaccine target by half in the same month citing shortage of raw materials. The pharma company had planned to produce over 1.2 billion mRNA Covid-19 vaccine shots in 2021, but due to the raw material shortages in the US and Europe, it reduced the target by half which would directly affect the promise made by Biden in election campaign.

As a result, the United States invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) in February this year in order to deal with a shortage of critical medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic as well as to accelerate the production of vaccine.

Passed in the aftermath of WWII, the law gives the executive branch – President being its head – substantial powers. The act enables the US President to direct private companies to prioritise orders from the federal government, and to allocate materials, services, and facilities for national defence purpose.

In the crux, this War-era law provides the President significant authority to control industries within the country. Before Biden invoked the law to speed-up the vaccination efforts, previous administration under Trump also used the law to limit exports of medical goods, and increase production of critical supplies last year.

Developments from last week

India is being devasted by a horrific wave of Covid-19, mere months after it was noted as an odd exception to the global chaos, having suffered relatively few cases and deaths through the winter.

India is now recording more infections per day – as many as 3,50,000 – than any other country has since the pandemic began. India’s rapid deterioration is now attracting global concern due to the pictures coming from the land.

The worsening situation in India has increased the demand of Covid-19 vaccine as nationwide lockdown would slide the country again into deep economic and internal migration crisis.

The ‘no response’ from the White House over the weekend raised some serious questions in policy circles in India on continuing the alliance and trusting the United States as a strategic partner.

The US State Department spokesperson responded in the press conference when asked about lifting embargo on raw materials, and said, “What I will say broadly is that the US, first and foremost, is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people, and it’s not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”

This statement reinforced the attitude of US foreign policy makers that American lives are far more important for them. Trump is out of the office, but his ‘American First’ attitude is here to stay.

Last year, when pandemic hit the world, the most effected country in the world was the US, and on the President Trump’s request India lifted the ban on the export of two key drugs, Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol, which proved to be effective in mitigating symptoms of Covid-19.

Last week, when India was facing a dire situation, US did not reciprocate the actions, despite already vaccinating a considerable number of its population and sitting on close to 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the stockpile, a stockpile which they are not even using. The frictions in bilateral relationship during the worst health crisis of the century could have had long lasting effects if the repair work had not been done. 

The silence of the top US leadership on this matter did not go down well in New Delhi, especially against the backdrop of the agreement on vaccine production and delivery at the first virtual summit of Quad leaders in March.

The Biden-Modi call came a day after US NSA Jake Sullivan dialled his counterpart NSA Ajit Doval Sunday. Biden in a tweet said that, “just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need.”

This came after criticism of Washington over its delay in responding and its earlier cold shoulder to a request for lifting the freeze on export of raw materials linked to vaccine manufacturing.

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