The year 2020 began in a flux. Almost every major country of the world had reported cases of the novel coronavirus (Covid19). This outbreak quickly metamorphosised into a pandemic that has gripped the world for over a year now and has brought with it, death, economic losses and immense uncertainty that still looms today.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), the designated multilateral body for global health crises declared Covid19 a pandemic, only in March 2020, almost five months after patient zero was detected. The lack of a quick response from the WHO at such a time has grossly tampered the credibility of the organisation. A lack of global leadership in controlling the pandemic and mitigating its impact, was seen particularly on the part of Western countries, that are usually proactive during economic and health crises of such a magnitude. Former US President, Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude towards the pandemic and zero initiative to take a leadership role and assist other countries to fight the virus, was frowned upon by the world. There was a lukewarm response from Europe too, with major countries like Germany, Italy, UK and France facing severe capacity constraints and a heavy death toll, especially during the first wave of the pandemic.
At such a time, India took a position of ‘responsibility’ and stepped up its efforts not just for its own needs, but to lead a pandemic response strategy for those countries that were finding it impossible to battle out on their own. India is called ‘the pharmacy of the world’, as was reiterated by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at the UNGAin September 2020 when he had declared that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis.
India has stayed true to this promise and could be considered a ‘global covid response leader’. India, under its ‘Vande Bharat’ mission, helped evacuate not just its stranded citizens, but citizens from other countries that sought help, after international travel bans were imposed. India supplied medical equipment, doctors, nurses, PPE kits, surgical and N95 masks, hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol and other relevant drugs to over 80 countries.
It is among the few countries (other than US, UK, Russia and China) to develop a vaccine of its own (Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech International Ltd.), as early as January 2021.This speaks volumes for its medical and pharmaceutical R&D and production capabilities. The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, is also manufacturing a vaccine, the Astra Zeneca – Oxford vaccine, called ‘Covishield’ in India.
Under its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme, India supplied vaccines to countries in its immediate neighbourhood (Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Mauritius and Seychelles) and thereafter to West Asia. The supplies then branched out to countries of the CARICOM and the African subcontinent. To date, India has supplied 66 million vaccines through bilateral contracts and through the global vaccine response initiative, COVAX. Of these, India has donated to 45 countries, commercially sold to 26 countries, and contributed to COVAX for 50 countries.
India took early action to foster global discussions and a coherent response to the pandemic by convening a meeting of SAARC heads of government on March 15, 2020 and proposing a SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. India was actively involved in the G20 Extraordinary Summit in 2020, also held for the same purpose. Since then, India has contributed to R&D efforts to fight the pandemic and in the monitoring and management of the crisis, at domestic, regional and multilateral platforms.
Supporters and critics of India’s foreign policy stances, have both applauded India’s outreach efforts and humanitarian initiatives during the pandemic. Along with its global efforts, India commenced a massive vaccination drive at home, aiming to first vaccinate its front-line workers, senior citizens, those above 45 years of age and then those between 18 and 44 years of age, in phases, and all, free of cost, simultaneously lining up enough medical supplies for global usage as well.
However, India was gripped with a severe second wave of the pandemic in April 2021, that saw more deaths than anticipated, especially in younger age groups that were not considered to be so vulnerable during the first wave. The healthcare infrastructure in India came under heavy pressure and most states ran out of supply of essential medical supplies and drugs. It also called for a massive ramping up of vaccine production, and opening up of the vaccination drive for these newly vulnerable age groups. This is when India’s calculations on the adequacy of vaccines for internal use and global supply faltered and a severe demand supply mismatch was witnessed. This gave critics a chance to create a narrative on the government’s policy to keep its global image intact, without bothering about the lives of its citizens.
With India facing grave capacity constraints internally, the world then stepped in to help India in its time of need. It seems like India’s covid diplomacy and leadership of the past year has worked. It reveals an impressive increase in its soft power and diplomatic influence globally. India received donations, grants and aid from over 40 nations as it faced a massive shortage of vaccines, oxygen, medical drugs and other equipment. India has already received the Sputnik vaccine from Russia. Other critical supplies came in from the UK, US, France, the EU, Ireland, Germany, Romania, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Kuwait, the U.A.E., Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Singapore. Help is still flowing in, as India strives to flatten its second wave and resume its role as a covid response leader.
However, the future management of the pandemic needs a coordinated international response, with firm and ‘responsible’ leadership from other countries and groupings as well.
In an interconnected world like ours, the dangers of a pandemic loom till every person in every country has been vaccinated and is not a carrier of the virus. So instead of being inward looking, countries must view the world without physical boundaries and care for the wellbeing of each citizen. The US under the Biden administration is now well suited to take on a leadership role once again. The US’ support for a waiver on ‘intellectual property’ for COVID vaccines, announced on May 5, 2021 is a welcome first step. The US must gather support from other countries on this critical issue.
The pandemic warrants a response, similar to the one taken after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. A global forum like the G20 took up the role of the economic steering committee for the world and crafted a response after the financial crisis. A similar effort is the need of the hour, in the form of a ‘Global health forum or collective’, in which member countries, representing different parts of the world will raise funds, devise mitigation strategies and be responsible for their implementation, in their own countries and in countries in their neighbourhood. The 74th World Health Assembly, is exploring an ‘International treaty for Pandemic Response and Preparedness’ to that effect.
Global health must be on every country’s bilateral and multilateral agenda, as well as the agenda of groupings like the G20, BRICS, BIMSTEC and QUAD for the foreseeable future. Adequate R&D and financing must be factored in. A relook into the role and a review of the inefficiencies of the WHO is also essential.
India took on the position of ‘a global covid response leader’ at a time when many other countries could not do so. However, the unforeseen second wave, the needs of its massive population and internal capacity constraints proved to be a shortfall and a challenge. Other than the vaccines it is receiving from the world, India has once again ramped up its vaccine production capacity but vaccine rollouts are now gripped by internal politics, a tussle between the central government and state governments and are no longer a serious response to the health crisis as they should be. India must fix these internal inefficiencies and quieten its internal debates on vaccine efficacy to be able to meet its domestic demands and still supply enough vaccines and medical supplies to the world as it has committed. Only then will it continue to gain the respect and support of other nations, for being so proactive for the world, in its time of need and can stake its claim of being a true (responsible) global covid response leader.
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Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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