Has India’s Vaccine Diplomacy Fallen Flat As Domestic Covid-19 Cases Surge & Global Media Lambasts The Govt?

India’s much-publicized Vaccine Diplomacy (Vaccine Maitri) seems to have taken a hit in the face of a much larger second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic back home.

While the international media has blamed what is seen as the Modi government’s missteps and complacency for the unprecedented health crisis, New Delhi has hit back saying, these are “completely baseless, malicious and slanderous” allegations.

When the South Asian nation rolled out its domestic inoculation campaign and global vaccine outreach earlier this year, many were congratulating New Delhi for somehow getting through the COVID-19 crisis with low infection and death rates.

But less than halfway through the year, the South Asian country is facing a much larger second wave of cases. This put a damper on India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative as the “world’s pharmacy” turned into the “world’s ICU”.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India had turned into the world’s pharmacy and many foreign nations have expressed confidence in the country’s medicines during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s true that India became the largest producer of generic medicines, contributing about 20% of the total global production, and then 62% of the global demand for vaccines.

However, the second wave of the pandemic caught the country unawares, exposing India’s ill-equipped health system. This can be gauged from the fact that India has almost run out of ICU beds across hospitals and is facing an acute shortage of medical-grade oxygen.

Vaccine Maitri – The Global Outreach

On January 20, India had launched its Vaccine Maitri initiative, just four days after it began its own domestic vaccination program following the government’s approval of the indigenous Covaxin and the Oxford–AstraZeneca research developed Covishield.

“It will be ensured that domestic manufacturers will have adequate stocks to meet domestic requirements while supplying abroad,” the Ministry of External Affairs had said on January 19, just one day before beginning its international initiative.

In an extension of the Modi government’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy, initial batches of the vaccine were sent to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Seychelles.

Out of the 66 million doses distributed worldwide, 36 million were commercial exports, about 10 million were grants from the government and 20 million were from the Serum Institute of India as part of the global COVAX initiative, involving WHO and other organizations.

India also granted 200,000 doses to UN peacekeepers on March 27 which covered the double doses of vaccines to all the peacekeepers engaged in various missions.

By the end of March, India had exported more doses (60m) than it had distributed domestically (44m). But by that time the tides began to turn as the safety cocoon India had been building around itself broke when cases rose unprecedently.

The Second Wave Of COVID-19

Despite a promising start, the second wave of COVID cases has drowned the projection of a vaccine giant. While on April 10, India boasted of being the fastest country as it inoculated 100 million citizens in 85 days.

By April 22 India had surpassed the US daily record of 297,430 new cases with its 315,000 new daily cases.

The government’s response of fast-tracking vaccination to all adults has put heavy pressure on domestic production, creating fears of shortages despite a temporary ban on vaccine exports.

Some blamed the government for exporting the initial batches which could have increased the inoculation rate by the time the second wave hit. Till now only about 140 million people — one-tenth of the Indian population — have been vaccinated.

Despite limitations put on the AstraZeneca vaccine by European countries due to claims of blood clots as a side effect, the European Union plans to go ahead with its use.

But that also meant that the EU decided to sue AstraZeneca for delays in the delivery of the vaccine. As the Pune-based Serum Institute of India shifts its focus to domestic needs, India’s international clients are facing the heat.

India’s daily new cases were around 15,000 when it began its international outreach. Early declarations of success creating a fake sense of security and overconfidence are probably to blame for the second wave.

Now, India is not only unable to export vaccines but it is unable to be self-sufficient in that regard. It has to depend on external help to get through the pandemic. Washington decided to remove restrictions on the export of raw materials for the vaccine only two days back after various appeals.

Many even wondered whether India’s “altruism” with its vaccine diplomacy hit the right targets.

Global Criticism

Former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon told The Economist that he doubts vaccine diplomacy alone can alter India’s image. The Economist also blamed India’s statist approach at the domestic level, which put restrictions on private production and slowed down coverage.

Several other international publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Haaretz, and The Australian have also taken a dim view of the Government’s response to the crisis.

Calling these allegations “completely baseless, malicious and slanderous”, the Indian High Commission in Canberra has sent a rejoinder to The Australian, following its report.

“It appears that the report has been written only with the sole objective of undermining the universally acclaimed approach taken by the Government of India to fight against the deadly global pandemic, at this decisive moment,” the rejoinder said.

Countering China in Southeast Asia

The QUAD, a strategic alliance between India, Japan, Australia, and the US to prevent Chinese domination of the Indo-Pacific region, pledged 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be supplied to Southeast Asian countries by 2022.

Southeast Asia is one the biggest target of Chinese vaccine diplomacy despite widespread skepticism among the region’s people about the Chinese vaccine. But for countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia which were not able to procure enough Western vaccine, this would be a boost.

In comparison to its rival China, India’s vaccine diplomacy did not have to do the task of image improvement. China had hoped that by exporting vaccines, it will be seen as the savior rather than the initial infector.

Bangladesh is perhaps the biggest recipient of India’s vaccine diplomacy, being the only country to receive more than 10 million doses till now. But as the Indian supply dries in face of its domestic needs, Bangladesh, along with other initial beneficiaries of India’s outreach such Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan turned their attention to China.

The Chinese media has used the opportunity to blame Indian nationalism for not taking its help despite the medical shortcomings of the Chinese vaccine. China’s vaccine diplomacy had its own failing which India could have outshone if the second wave had not hit.

In the end, what probably began as a soft power maneuver to outwit China ended up hurting India’s COVID recovery.

From the Editors Desk