The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘diplomacy’ as the activity of managing the relationship with different countries; the skill in doing this. The same dictionary defines ‘famine’ as a lack of food during a long period of time in a region. If we try to mix both these words or form something like a diplomatic famine or famine diplomacy, it would carry no literal meaning. However, if the same becomes a policy initiative of a country, to call it meaningless would not sound diplomatic at all.
Let us look at another term- ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’. Now it is the usage of vaccine to make a diplomatic relationship of a country with other countries better. And in the time when COVID-19, the pandemic, has transparentized the current situations of healthcare systems across the world, a few countries including India went on to establish vaccine diplomacy with many other countries, through its initiative ‘Vaccine Maitri’ (Vaccine Friendship).
On January 29, 2021, India had a total of 1,71,686 active cases. On the same day, the Indian Prime Minister while speaking at the Davos Forum declared that India has won the war on COVID-19. And gradually, similar words were said at the Parliament too. However, in two months since then, COVID-19’s second wave attacked India. In such a time, the declaration that the Prime Minister made a few months ago, rather than leading to healthy diplomacy amidst nations, warned other nations like the USA, which refused to clear exports of vaccine ingredients to India and the excess vaccines they had at their disposal, to meet their domestic needs first.
It is said that the current period is a period of diplomacy, where the countries try to influence other countries through the exchange of excess resources either as commercial transactions or free of cost. And India, completely living by it went on to start the Vaccine Maitri Programme to contribute its part in the global need for vaccines. It was the euphoric illusion of India having managed COVID-19 that outlines where India’s vaccine diplomacy went wrong. Let’s analyze India’s vaccine diplomacy in details.
India is the “pharmacy of the world”. And when it began its vaccination drive in January, it was expected that it would be a global leader in vaccine distribution. However, improper planning, a mismatch between the target and production, poor analysis of self-needs and the alarming digital divide are becoming certain unwanted characteristics of the vaccination drive. When the Health Ministry was sticking to mere two vaccines to establish its image of self-reliance, the other countries were busy procuring more vaccines and calculating the domestic needs for the same. China has managed to export over 80 lakh vaccines to more than 60 countries. But that happened after it had met its own needs. And thus in the similar lines, the US State Department also did not clear exports of the ingredients of vaccine to India, initially, based on the ground that it is in the interest of the rest of the world itself to see America completely vaccinated or in other words, had made its intention of hoarding vaccines, clear to the world.
And in that context of time, India exported around 66 million doses to 95 countries of the world under its Vaccine Maitri initiative, which is a number large enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Delhi and Mumbai combined, the two hotspots of the virus in the present time.
It is indeed important to be a vaccine diplomat, but it is equally important to know that nations respect nations that respect themselves. As per an analysis by R Ramkumar, a noted economist, India had to vaccinate 966 million adults, which would mean 1932 million doses of vaccine. And even if India plans to vaccinate everyone above the age of 18 in 12 months, the requirement will be 5.4 million doses per day. But, the combined production of capacity of its producers, as well as their proposed capacity expansions, India’s total capacity, was not to be more than 3.8 million doses a day.
And in this huge shortage, India due to its commitments will have to give 15% of its capacity to other countries. And which would result in India producing 3.3 million doses per day. And of these 3.3 million doses, the Centre again has decided the 2:1:1 ratio for distribution, where the Centre will procure 50% of the vaccines and send them to other states, the states will procure 25% of the vaccine and the rest 25% will be bought by Private Hospitals. And the rates for these hospitals will be of course be different than the regulated price in which they will be giving the vaccine to the Central and the State Government. This in turn will add to the already existing inequality in vaccine delivery, which has become more of a “fastest finger first contest”.
Thirdly, to meet this shortage of vaccine and not let the deteriorating image get further affected, the Government on April 13 finally granted “emergency” use approval to the foreign vaccines of COVID-19. But the same is expected to reach India, not before June-July, 2021. India along with vaccines has been dealing with the problems of oxygen shortage. However, the need for oxygen is gradually being met with collaborations of different voluntary organizations, philanthropic institutions, etc.
Fourthly, if we don’t look at it from the perspective of India’s diplomacy and add the gratitude factor where India has always helped its neighbours at the time of need, different analysts of international relations like Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow from Observer Research Foundation has mentioned that even if India gains from vaccine diplomacy, it will be very transient and pyrrhic. India did a lot of help to Nepal during the Nepal earthquake. But what came in return is a deteriorating relationship in 2020. Historically too, China had received huge investment from the Soviet Union in the 1950s but the goodwill gesture of Moscow did not help much. By the late 1960s, China was openly hostile and in 1969 there was a seven-month-long undeclared military war among both countries.
India has registered more deaths in the second wave than many other countries combined. And different doctors have stated about the dangers associated with the second wave being more deadly than the first wave. The stories of Dalgona coffee are reducing too, which means this wave of Covid-19 has become an affront to the invincibility of the elite. And in such a context of time, when a vaccine, though not a permanent solution to COVID-19 but still, something that can act as a life-saver, should be delivered more equitably. It needs to be made clear that the element to be distributed is a vaccine and not mosquito nets, where differences and discrepancies have always existed.
Speaking at a business chamber event, Indian Diplomat and Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar said that if India does not export vaccines, it cannot even ask for the same from the rest of the world. But, India since late did not even ask for the same and relied upon indigenously developed Covaxin and Oxford-AstraZeneca developed and SII manufactured Covishield. Lately, with Sputnik V reaching India, in accordance to a deal with Dr Reddy’s, though vaccine delivery will get a slight pace, but not all the vaccines are not going to be free of cost, as the private hospitals have started vaccination drives too.
People have not been fighting with health merely. In this difficult time, there is also an economic downfall characterizing the country. The prices of all the essential commodities right from mustard oil to petrol and diesel have drastically risen. Apart from Kerala, the prices of N-95 masks and sanitisers have not been reduced to a subsidized rate anywhere else. And all this is happening at a time, when the migrant workers, daily wage earners, small shopkeepers have not even recovered completely from the first wave of COVID-19 lockdown. In such a time, these vaccines which are not going to be distributed free of cost, everywhere, as it was during the very successful pulse polio immunization programme, might enhance hesitancy in the minds of the economically weaker class. Also, the taxpayers have been paying taxes and, on a vaccine, which is being procured or developed through publicly funded research, a price for the same would lead to a double payment, by them.
Thus, in a tussle between choosing to support its own need to mitigate the distressful famine and aspiration of ensuring healthier vaccine diplomacy than China, the choice becomes important. On the one hand, when India with its policy of neighbourhood first, advancement of India’s ocean region strategy and going beyond mere geographical engagements and establishing a relationship with Brazil and Morocco to resume India as the leading voice of the developing countries has been providing vaccines. On the other hand, until the production is increased for free delivery of vaccine, the same diplomacy will come at the cost of worsening the already existing situation of vaccine delivery, rising COVID-19 cases and unfortunately, the mortalities. Before the delivery of vaccines to other countries apart from some of its needy neighbouring countries, had India concentrated on its own requirement, this itself could have brought down the total number of cases in the world by millions. In other words, if India gets completely recovered from Covid-19, this would mean imply that nearly 1/5th of the whole world has recovered from the virus, thereby shedding a big portion of the global COVID-19 cases. Thus, it is not a ‘Charity begins at home’ case, rather it’s a lot about India maintaining itself the very own narrative it has been asking its citizen to follow- ‘stay home-stay safe’.
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