The diplomatic response of India to the Coronavirus pandemic has been remarkable in terms of sending essential supplies, and providing medical assistance to neighbours in South Asia and other third world countries.
While the western countries have shut door on less-developed nations by imposing export restrictions, and prioritising their national population, India has extended a helping hand to the less-privileged living in low-income nations, while taking care of 1.3 billion people at home.
India’s current vaccine diplomacy would also give impetus to complete the objectives of its foreign policy at the time when India sits at the high table of United Nations, which is in dire need of reforms.
With the development of two made-in-India vaccines, GOI has responded with a stunning speed to help the badly affected countries to fight the raging Coronavirus pandemic spread around the world. The predominant response of western countries to the disease has been to shut down, and look inwards with an apparent mindset to hoard vaccines by striking pre-purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies. This move by the West is considered as a Vaccine Nationalism.
India aims to offer 20 million vaccine doses to neighbouring countries Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Seychelles, and Mauritius by this spring. India have also signed so-called vaccine pacts with many of the recipient countries on a government-to-government basis to finalise the number of doses, and determine whether they will be provided under grant assistance or under commercial terms.
While commercial overseas shipments are likely to start around March, India has already sent 3.2 million free doses of the vaccine Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. These countries are heavily influenced by the growing Chinese penetration into their domestic politics, and India’s vaccine diplomacy can help foster stronger ties in the region, to offset China’s growing influence.
Last year, India’s controversial citizenship amendments, and China’s investments worth USD 40 Billion in Bangladesh strained the historical cooperative ties between Dhaka and New Delhi. Since then, India has been making overtures to smoothen relations.
India’s vaccine outreach programme extends to its other south-east Asian neighbour, Nepal. The relations with Nepal recently hit a new low during the pandemic when both the countries entered into a heated exchange over the Kalapani territorial dispute — an area situated at the strategic China-Nepal-India trijunction. China is also expanding its arms in the Nepal politics, and supporting financially infrastructure projects. The vaccine diplomacy provides an opportunity for India to resolve outstanding issues with Nepal, and mend its ties with Bangladesh.
Western countries, the highly developed, industrialised, and so-called first world, are historically regarded as powerful in international affairs, and respected in diplomatic channels, but Covid-19 exposed them to the world.
Despite being hailed for the hard power of US, and welcomed for propagating ‘liberal European values’, the West just took one year post the pandemic breakout to show how vulnerable it is. Europe is one of the regions which is worst affected by Covid-19; ten of the 20 countries with the highest death count per lakh people are European, rest are American, including the US, which topped the chart for confirmed cases and deaths in the world.
The reasons for the debacle of Western countries in the handling the pandemic are incompetent government (especially Trump’s), administrative confusion, ‘civil liberties’, initial underestimation of the danger, and dependence on imports of PPE.
Western countries act as a de-facto leaders and representative of the rest of the world, but they failed in upholding the responsibility to not only safeguard their domestic population, but also assist the developing countries, which seemed more vulnerable to outbreak of viruses due to lack of facilities. These expectations fell apart as soon as pictures came from Italy, a G-7 country with second best health facilities in the world.
The coronavirus pandemic compelled the countries to enforce hard lockdown to contain the virus. This led to restricted international transportation, and disrupted global supply chains which resulted in the surge of global demand for medicines, medical supplies, and personal protection equipment. Naturally, the wealthy countries prioritised their population initially as steps were taken to maintain sufficient stock of foodstuffs to contain inflation, and ensure food security.
Several states such as United Kingdom and US, and trade blocs, prominently European single market enforced export prohibitions, and restrictions to stabilise domestic supplies of essential goods, and control their domestic prices.
The European Union imposed a prior authorisation regime for export of protective equipment in March, 2020, while the Eurasian Economic Union banned exports of certain food items, and medical supplies like disinfectants.
Similarly, UK and US imposed export restrictions on products such as protective gear, diagnostic test kits. Russia and Kazakhstan imposed export bans on wheat, grain, and flour.
These measures by rich exporting nations at the time of raging pandemic affected the developing nations, which are more dependent on the imports of finished products from technologically advanced and industrialised nations.
The steps taken by economically rich countries to look inwardly increased the possibility to induce the long-lasting humanitarian crisis, and promote smuggling through other illegal channels of trade in the low-income countries.
Net importers of medicines and protective gear, such as Sub-Saharan countries are highly vulnerable to these shocks in the global supply chain. Countries such as Bangladesh and Lebanon rely on the imports of wheat and wheat products from Russia, and export restrictions on the food items by Russians could have led to possible food crisis leading to mass starvation and migration.
Known as the pharmacy of the world, India is the largest producer of generic medicines accounting for 20 percent of global production, and meets 62 percent of the global demand for vaccines. With the market size of more than USD 41 Billion, and the current growth rate, India’s pharmaceutical sector is expected to become the USD 100 billion industry by 2025.
India supplies affordable and low-cost generic drugs to millions of people across the globe, contributing majorly in the country’s foreign trade with the annual exports’ worth USD 20 billion.
The well-established domestic manufacturing base, and ample manpower lowered the costs of Indian pharma products in the international markets, and subsequently, increased the demand. This is why India ranks 14th globally in terms of value, and third in terms of volume.
India is emerging as a global hub for pharmaceutical manufacturing, and increasingly being called as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, a well-deserved title for Indian Pharma industry.
Even before the pandemic hit the world, the Indian Pharma industry was on a growth trajectory with attractive avenues, and ample opportunities for investors. Presently, when COVID vaccines have entered into markets, countries are looking towards Indian pharma companies to supply the much-needed doses to vaccinate their population. This provides India with an opportunity to play a larger role in global drug security.
India assisted developing countries showing its leadership quality in the times of suffering and need. While some western countries were enforcing exports restrictions and prohibitions, and US & China were engaging in allegations war on the precise location of the origin of novel coronavirus, India stood up for the underprivileged from every corner of the world.
List of assistance provided by India to countries around the globe goes long, despite handling the pandemic at its home with 1.3 Billion people. The country has been at the forefront of supplying medicines and generic drugs to other countries since the pandemic began. It received requests from more than 100 countries for hydroxychloroquine, and paracetamol (a painkiller), and sent supplies to Brazil, the United States, and Israel.
India spent around $16 million – half of it in Africa – on pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other medical assistance for some 90 countries by May 2020. We sent consignments of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), paracetamol, and other drugs to 25 African countries at a total cost, including transportation, of around Rs 600 million ($7.9 million). This garnered a worldwide applause. The anti-malaria HCQ can be used as a prophylaxis to prevent COVID-19 infection, but not as a treatment, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research, but HCQ proved to be significant in preventing the infection when people were dying in every part of the country, especially, in the western countries. US President Donald Trump also promoted the drug as a coronavirus "game changer”.
India has also sent medical supplies, including masks and other types of personal protective equipment to countries around the Indian Ocean, in Central Asia, and in Africa.
New Delhi also made diplomatic moves to reaching out to seven fellow members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in March 2020, and helped on various fronts to counter coronavirus pandemic seeking a primer mover role in the region.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted video conference with leaders of SAARC countries in March 2020, and proposed a slew of measures, including the setting up of a Covid emergency fund with an initial contribution of $10 million from India, putting together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, and setting up an information system for disease surveillance.
India deployed defence forces to propagate its health diplomacy. Indian Air Force delivered 6.2 tonnes of essential medicines in early April to the Maldives using a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, and the Indian naval vessel INS Kesari was set out for the Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar, and the Comoros with food items and medicines, including traditional Indian remedies on May 10.
India also assisted in capacity building by offering health care training for COVID-19 management and protocols to 160 countries along with providing the training in lockdown management to some foreign police forces.
Acting on its “Neighbourhood First” policy, India has previously helped countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean region to build hospitals and health care centres, and has expanded its role from only as the pharmacy of the world to a net public health security provider.
India along with South Africa consistently supported measures to temporarily suspend COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property (IP) rights – that means it could produce generic versions at lightning speed whenever a vaccine was created – related to COVID-19. The idea is to ensure that access to these vaccines, medicines, and other new technologies can be given to not only the wealthiest countries, but also low-income countries.
The resolution faced the strong opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, and many high-income countries, including UK, US, Canada, Norway, and the EU. They rejected the proposal outrightly, saying that the IP system is required to incentivise new inventions of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments, which might dry up in its absence.
The developing countries lag behind the rich-western countries in terms of vaccine development, and lacks pharmaceutical manufacturing infrastructure. These concerns were addressed by India and South Africa so that no human being on the planet get deprived of the essentials due to his/her socio-economic background. They argued that without special measure, rich countries will benefit from new technologies as they come onto the market, while poor nations continue to be devastated by the pandemic.
The proposal states that IP rights such as patents are obstructing affordable COVID-19 medical products. A temporary ban would allow multiple actors to start production sooner, instead of having manufacturing concentrated in the hands of a small number of patent holders.