“Only little men discriminate by saying: one is a parent; the other is a foreigner. For those who live magnanimously, the whole world is one family.
– Vasudhaiva Kutubakam, Maha Upanishad by Dr. AG Krishna Warrior
In the spirit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s underlying theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in its approach to foreign policy, India rolled out its vaccination campaign in January this year and almost simultaneously launched ‘Vaccine Maitri’ under which a total of 6.6 crore doses of vaccine were sent to 95 countries. . India sent around 1.1 crore in vaccine grants and the remaining 5.5 crore were trade commitments. The grants have gone to neighboring countries, to very poor countries and to those with a large Indian diaspora.
So far, so good.
The initiative began with a noble and healthy policy of taking the lead in ensuring a healthy world as a vaccine-making nation. Additionally, despite a call for vaccine nationalism from many quarters, the Indian government rightly ignored it as this was an island approach to foreign policy. While the idea is nice, no one realized that this demagoguery was happening to the detriment of their own people as Indians faced a massive shortage of vaccines in their country. No other country in the world except India has started to export vaccines commercially despite the share of its own fully vaccinated population remaining below 5%.
Vaccine diplomacy as a whole includes planning for global procurement, filling raw material gaps in the manufacturing process, and prioritizing distribution to important countries. It cannot be simply reduced to the sum of its part which is – Vaccine Maitri. This whole exercise also exposed the silos in which different departments have worked in government where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand has done.
The need in times of pandemic was to have a cohesive approach to diplomacy as well as vaccination. Unfortunately, episodic events have always taken priority over coherent planning in the current government. Due to a poorly planned vaccine procurement strategy, India was forced to halt vaccine exports, which severely impacted 91 vaccine dependent countries in India. It also led to questions about India’s capabilities and ability to be a supplier of vaccines to the world, and forced the countries that depended on us to look for other ways to get the vaccines.
What could the Indian government have done better to truly rise to the challenge of the pandemic? It’s simple, but when the idea is advertising, it becomes difficult to plan beyond an event that has become the Vaccine Maitri initiative. India should have stocked enough vaccines for the nation, but the government did not do so because it believed Covid was in its final stages and, as vaccine makers, we may not have no need for the vaccines we make.
While only 1.6 crore in doses were ordered from Indian manufacturers until January 2021, the UK had ordered 15 crore in doses and the US had ordered 40 crore in doses of several vaccines in 2020 itself. In the same belief that it has beaten the virus, the government chose not to consider granting emergency approvals to other global vaccines, only to do an about-face in April. Dynamic changes are understandable, but poorly planned changes are not. Unlike other vaccine producing countries in the world, India has not spent on vaccine research and production either.
In January 2021, Prime Minister Modi in Davos declared India among the most effective countries in saving lives, completely ignoring the fact that various states in the country had started rushing towards a second deadly wave which then resulted in a unprecedented devastation. Soon the “world pharmacy”, which offered vaccines to the world, left its own citizens dry with a shortage of vaccines.
As cases grew unmanageable, India was forced to seek help from foreign countries for essential medical supplies, a first in many years. Our small neighboring countries have also helped. While the government continued to call it a victory for its diplomacy, it unfortunately was not. India was the most vulnerable. At the recent G7 summit, Prime Minister Modi called for support for a proposal presented to the WTO by India and South Africa for a TRIPS waiver on Covid-related technologies. This is much needed, but we are reluctant to invoke compulsory licensing law in our own country for capacity building.
Despite all of this, it is time for Vaccine Maitri 2.0 to be rolled out so that we can deliver on our commitments as the second peak tapers and vaccine supplies stabilize. We hope the government has learned from our experiences and as we fight China and its vassal state, Pakistan at the borders, it is important to ensure that we use all the tools in our diplomatic arsenal to support our neighbors. who supported us through and thin. It is time for India to unleash its capacity – start immunization in the country on the war footing by purchasing more vaccines (we have a budget allocation of Rs 35,000 crore for this), building capacity by invoking the Compulsory Licensing Act, and urging global vaccine manufacturers to manufacture in India.
It’s going to be a long way for the world, and as the global manufacturer of 60% of the world’s vaccines, India needs to speak with confidence and not just indulge in its own mann ki baat.
The author is a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, Shiv Sena.
(Opinions expressed are personal)
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