COVID WAR: India, China Find A New Battle Ground For Medical Diplomacy In Latin America & Caribbean Nations

Traditional foes India and China have taken the so-called COVID warfare and medical diplomacy to a new level. India is making aggressive moves to step up its medical assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC nations) to counter growing Chinese influence. 

It is reported that the Indian government is planning to provide medical assistance to about 28 countries that fall across Latin America and the Caribbean or LAC nations along with 19 of the African nations.

Official sources have mentioned the approval of five million HCQ (Hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug) tablets for 28 LAC countries and 100,000 each for 19 African countries.

It is estimated that out of the five million tablets, Peru will receive the highest amount of tablets that count up to around 900,000 followed by Venezuela receiving 740,000. 500,000 tablets will be sent to Guatemala, 400,000 to Ecuador and 300,000 each to Cuba, Bolivia and Haiti.

By the second week of April, many of the Latin American countries that include Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and some of the Caribbean nations had already asked India for a joint fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“India should assist with medicines, medical equipment, accessories, experience sharing, special modules to train medical teams in the region through telemedicine. The scope is limitless; the speedy formulation of the package and action is called for,” a former diplomat told media in the context of Latin American countries.

Before India, its immediate neighbour, China had already set foot on the Latin American lands. Providing medical assistance like ventilators, surgical masks and testing kits has rather become its forte since the outbreak of coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, last December.

Since early April, Beijing had been providing planeloads of medical equipment to the LAC nations. China dispatched almost 800,000 N95 masks and one million gloves by the first week of April to Mexico. Almost 13 tons of medical equipment was sent to Argentina while Chinese medics also shared their expertise in dealing with the pandemic.

Private enterprises like Alibaba Group chaired by Jack Ma, the wealthiest man in China, also donated two million masks, 400,000 testing kits and 104 ventilators to 24 Latin American countries.

However, experts like Peter Schechter believe that “China has proven itself astute at filling U.S.-abandoned gaps. For example, Argentina and Ecuador are two of China’s largest debtors in the region and are currently struggling to pay back the IMF amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Helping Quito and Buenos Aires with their debts could be an obvious next move by Beijing.”

Schechter continues saying “in addition, China’s banks will certainly extend concessional loans to the region, as they have in the past to major players such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Moreover, to the extent that China itself recovers economically from the coronavirus, it will expand its foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region to boost market share as western companies pull out.”

Since the coronavirus clutched all the major countries across the globe, crushing the production systems and forcing them into lockdowns, both India and China have extended their helping hand to many nations who have struggled to deal with the pandemic.

On one hand, where China has been publicly blamed for mishandling the virus, Professor Zhiqun Zhu from Bucknell University believes that “striking a balance between firmly defending national interests and enhancing soft power is a great challenge in Chinese diplomacy today.”

Meanwhile, India has supplied medicines to 133 countries (446 million HCQ tablets and 1.54 billion Paracetamol tablets) on both commercial and grant basis. “The Indian generosity in the times of this pandemic has not gone unnoticed, while it has earned New Delhi a well-deserved goodwill.

India also enjoys a world image of being a robust democracy and non-predatory as opposed to China. The act of generosity has turned the world attention towards India and is sure to open doors towards deeper ties around the world,” says Aparaajita Pandey, a doctoral candidate at Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin America Studies, JNU.

Vipasha Kaushal