What went wrong with India’s vaccine diplomacy?

  • IASbaba
  • April 27, 2021
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  • GS-2: Foreign Policy
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

What went wrong with India’s vaccine diplomacy?

Context: In the Second Wave, India’s growing coronavirus deaths have taken the sheen of the government’s diplomacy during the COVID-era. With more than three lakh new cases a day, India is the country with the biggest surge at present

India’s COVID Diplomacy

  • Lifted restrictions on HCQ Drug: India lifted its ban on exports of the drug HCQ, when there was demand for it across the world.
  • Medical Assistance: India sent medical teams to countries in the neighbourhood to assist the government to tackle the rising cases of COVID-19
  • Vaccine Supply: Under its massive Vaccine Maitri programme, India exported more than 66 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 95 countries worldwide. Of these about 10 million were grants from the government, 20 million were sent as part of the global COVAX facility, and the rest 36 million were commercial export
  • Forefront of multilateral diplomacy efforts: The Quad plan aims for production of one billion vaccines to be offered to South East Asian countries
  • Fight at WTO: India-South Africa are putting efforts at the WTO to have all vaccine patents (TRIPs) waived for the coronavirus pandemic duration 

What were actions by other countries?

  • China has exported 80 million doses to about 60 countries, but only after it managed its own internal COVID-19 crisis. 
  • The European Union (EU) has exported 113.5 million doses to 43 countries, but the EU is made up of 27 countries. 
  • The worst affected United States, which through the use of executive orders and its Defense Production Act, made domestic production and use of COVID-19 vaccines and pharma supplies its priority, refusing exports at present.

So why is the government now facing criticism for its diplomacy? 

  • Prematurely declaring Victory: Government did not anticipate the current second wave crisis and sent out the wrong message internationally when on January 29th, during his speech at the Davos forum, PM Modi said that the country had won the war on COVID-19.
    • At the time, India was seeing about 11,000 new cases a day nationwide and 1.5 lakh active cases. Today that number has grown to 3 lakh new cases and 24 lakh active cases on an upward trend.  
  • Poor Preparedness on domestic & Trade front: India did not leverage its strengths over the past few weeks to ramp up hospital bed strength, pharma supplies and oxygen production through imports and for not halting those exports like pharmaceuticals and oxygen, that were needed the most.
  • Wrong time to launch Vaccine Maitri Programme: Indian launched Vaccine Maitri programme at exactly the same time as the domestic vaccination programme began, without properly estimating the need or the urgency of vaccinating the whole population of India.
    • In all, 66 million vaccine doses were exported, while India’s entire vaccine programme over three months from mid-January to mid-April has given 130 million doses. This means that at the very least, India exported what could have been used for a month of vaccinations domestically.
  • Vaccine Exporter to Vaccine Importer: As the government has declared vaccines for all over 18 years to be opened up from May 1, India has gone from being a vaccine exporter, to needing vaccine imports, including the Russian Sputnik vaccine, U.S. developed Johnson and Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer and others.  
  • Cancelled Diplomatic Meeting: Lack of awareness of the problem was most obvious in the international visits that were planned during this period — visits to India by Rwanda President Kagame, Danish PM Frederiksen, UK PM Johnson, Japanese PM Suga, all of which have had to be cancelled.

What is the government’s defence?

  • The government’s defence, expressed by EAM S. Jaishankar is — India cannot ask the world for help, for vaccine supplies if it is not willing to export its own product to help others. 

Counter Arguments

  • India is the world’s second most populous country, and after the U.S., has the highest number of cases, active cases and deaths. If it helps its own citizens, it will take a large load off the global pandemic worry. 
  • U.S. response on why it wasn’t exporting excess vaccines, was that it is “not only in US interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.” The same should be true for India and Indians.

Connecting the dots:

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