India’s vaccine diplomacy is moving at a trot and has set the pace for countering the Covid-19 pandemic. It was indeed a big boost when, as part of the first virtual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) leaders’ meeting on March 12, US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga decided to help India produce at least one billion vaccine doses for the Asia-Pacific region.
The Quad initiative aims to reduce manufacturing backlog, speed up vaccination, and defeat some Coronavirus mutations. The funding would be from the US and Japan and logistical help would come from Australia.
South Block claims that India has now become a “vaccine superpower” in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. The new orientation is in tune with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s significant foreign policy approach at projecting India as a global stakeholder. A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial has praised India for its Covid diplomacy.
“India has emerged the surprise leader of the global vaccine diplomacy race. It has exported three times more doses than it’s given its own citizens and can spare even more without hurting its own rollout”, Eric Bellman of WSJ tweeted.
New Delhi has not only managed to thwart China’s Covid diplomacy but also overtaken it. According to the United Nations (UN), India has made more vaccine donations than China, with over eight million doses given away, compared to 7.3 million from China.
Both are making vaccines for the rest of the world in addition to getting their vast populations inoculated. Chinese premier Xi Jinping has called Chinese medical supplies to the ‘Health Silk Road,’ a part of China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, it plans to provide free vaccines to 69 countries and sell them to 28.
India, too, has adopted vaccine diplomacy as part of its foreign policy. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar declared in Parliament last week that the ‘Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine friendship)’ programme has “raised India’s standing and generated great international goodwill.” Giving details, the Minister said, “In fact, we supplied 150 nations with medicines, 82 of them as grants by India.
As (the production of) our own masks, PPEs and diagnostic kits grew, we made them available to other nations. This generous approach… was also extended to the ‘Vande Bharat Mission.’ Starting from Wuhan, we brought back nationals of other countries while looking after our own.”
“Acting East” and “acting fast” is the new mantra for South Block. The Modi Government’s vaccine initiative got a boost, particularly in the neighbouring countries. For instance, strained ties with Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka have improved after a timely vaccine supply. Indicating the importance of this, Sri Lanka and Dominica’s leaders personally received Indian-made vaccines at the airport, and the Mongolian Prime Minister took the Indian vaccine.
All these initiatives were possible because India’s massive pharmaceutical industry accounts for about 20 per cent of the world’s generic medicines and more than 60 per cent of all global vaccine production. In fact, India administered 29.74 million doses of the anti-COVID shots to its own citizens by March 15 and the inoculation drive is in full swing.
However, the rising number of variants and a second surge of Covid in States like Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is causing concern. There are some concerns about vaccine diplomacy, too, in a few quarters.
The first is whether India will be able to meet the demand and the second is whether the vaccine diplomacy is taking place at the expense of the citizens of the country?
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan is confident that the Government has addressed these concerns. The Serum Institute of India (SII) which produces the Novavax and the AstraZeneca vaccines recently raised concerns about raw material shortages.
Its Chief Executive Officer, Adar Poonawalla Alleged;
“The sharing of these raw materials is going to become a critical limiting factor nobody has been able to address this so far”
Another Indian manufacturer, Biological E, which produces the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, has also raised similar concerns. The other worry is that the country is lagging behind its target. However, there is optimism that other vaccines in the pipeline might ease this burden.
Overall, the covid diplomacy so far has yielded goodwill for India and won it some new friends. One can’t blame South Block for riding on the new initiative. As The New York Times says, the Covid-19 vaccine is the latest diplomatic currency.