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In spite of the Covid surge, India’s vaccine diplomacy is the right thing to do

Countries cannot build the goodwill necessary for a peaceful rise without displaying a certain degree of selflessness.

Vaccines from India being loaded on a plane for delivery to different countries.

It was the historian E. H. Carr who wrote, in The Twenty Year Crisis, that, “international morality, as expounded by most contemporary Anglo-Saxon writers, became a little more than a convenient weapon for belabouring those who assailed the status quo”.

Two world leaders who speak most often about morality, justice, compassion, and caring for the underprivileged, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Joe Biden of America, might want to read Carr’s book with some care.

As India faces a devastating second wave, German Chancellor Merkel was quoted as saying, “We now have a situation in India where, in connection with the emergency situation of the pandemic, we are worried if the pharmaceutical products will still come to us”. To put this ‘worry’ in context, on April 23, 2021, Germany reported a little over 22,000 cases of Covid-19 infections, while on the same day, India had more than 346,000 cases. Germany is India’s largest trading partner in Europe, and yet, the primary concern expressed by the German Chancellor was about supplies to her country, and not Indian lives. Merkel is famous for her empathy for refugees arriving on Europe’s shores – but somehow that compassion does not seem to be extending to dying Indians.

The US has gone a step further by blocking raw supplies exports from its shores for the fast-track manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine. America has more than 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine which does not have clearance for use in that country from authorities yet and is unlikely to get the necessary approval.

Which means the Biden government is telling India that it would rather 20 million doses of the vaccine, which has approval for use in India, go waste than save, potentially, 10 million Indian lives.

In the now infamous statement made by a US State Department representative said, “"United States first and foremost is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people". But here’s the damning thing – giving India portions of the stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccine that the US has does not in any way impede the vaccination of the American people, for the simple reason that the vaccine is not cleared for use in America and is unlikely to be!

It is astounding that the Biden administration could defend this precious stockpile going waste rather than it help save lives in countries terribly hit by new waves of the pandemic like India and Brazil. Underlining this, the US Chamber of Commerce has issued an urgent appeal asking the government to release this stockpile, saying, “These vaccine doses will not be needed in the United States, where it’s estimated that vaccine manufacturers will be able produce enough doses by early June to vaccinate every American.

These insensitive statements have raised the question – should India have given more than 66 million vaccine doses to different needy countries around the world in a historic effort at vaccine diplomacy? Undoubtedly these would have helped push up vaccination numbers in India where around 130 million people have received a first dose of a vaccine, and around 20 million, the two doses needed to complete the course.

There could be a valid argument that India miscalculated the extent of the second wave and could have kept more vaccines at home. These were given at a time when the coronavirus seemed to be slowly fading away in India, and as the world’s biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer by volume, India had an ethical responsibility. Faced with the tsunami of new cases at home, India has paused its vaccine diplomacy.

But should it have conducted such an effort at all? The answer to that must be a resounding yes. India has an ethical and a diplomatic commitment to help with lifesaving drugs in countries that need it the most.

From Sri Lanka to Suriname, Bhutan to Afghanistan, India has fulfilled a critical role, and when cases subside in India, the country must take up such a task once again. In a world where India seeks greater recognition of its role and position, such an effort underlines it global humanitarian commitment. Health diplomacy will play an increasingly important role in the future as the world struggles with new health crises with a warming planet, and endless natural calamities and climate change-related issues.

At the time of its independence from British rule in 1947, and afterwards, a materially weak India gained international prominent by supporting anti-colonial movements around the world, and even facilitating a new grouping of ‘non-aligned’ countries. Today, though India has come a long way in terms of material strength, it may not yet be able to compete based on per capita income with the richer countries of the world, but it can embrace ideas like vaccine diplomacy to use its manufacturing prowess and highlight its international commitment.

India’s vaccine diplomacy therefore is, and should be, a continuing matter of pride.


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