Vaccine diplomacy and NepalLeaders are busy negotiating when they should be focusing on public health issues.
In the contemporary world, the notion that knowledge belongs to humanity has significantly faltered. Instead, scientific innovations such as Covid-19 vaccines have been a part of a country’s soft power, not only in the form of vaccine diplomacy as a charm offensive, but also as vaccine nationalism, which has now been perceived as a global threat. Thus, small countries like Nepal need to pursue proactive diplomacy to ensure that their vaccines needs are fulfilled on time. Covid-19 has been taken as the most challenging crisis since World War II, and it has also been perceived as the death of the liberal world order. Though the developed countries have the capacity to respond to its severe impact, developing nations like Nepal do not have adequate resources to fight the pandemic and its repercussions.
There are some substantial initiatives such as COVAX that manages a global collaboration to guarantee impartial and equitable access of Covid-19 vaccines for each country in the world. It is certainly a great initiative but not adequate. It will be able to provide only enough vaccines for vulnerable groups by the first half of 2021. Thus, Nepal’s priority at this stage has to be to look for multiple options to guarantee enough vaccines at the earliest possible.
We first, you second
The vaccine manufacturing countries need millions of doses for their own populations, and they will use the rest to secure their own interests. The United States secretary of health, for instance, recently said that any US vaccines would become available to the rest of the world only after their domestic demand had been met. India and China have repeatedly said that they are committed to providing vaccines from the time they become ready for use. India alone manufactures about 60 percent of the global vaccine needs, and is hoping to inoculate about 300 million people by July next year.
India and China are apparently conducting vaccine diplomacy in South Asia. After China offered its vaccines to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh last month, India also pushed forward its vaccine diplomacy in the neighbourhood. India’s foreign secretary stated in Kathmandu in November that India’s closest neighbours like Nepal would get the first priority for Indian vaccines. However, Nepal’s relations with India have frayed due to border disputes, and it is uncertain if this is going to affect the vaccine deal. It is possible that India will make a good gesture by providing some vaccines. India will also need to do this to not let China fill the gap, as in the context of the unofficial 2015 border blockade against Nepal.
In this scenario, the Nepal government should also come up with some proactive initiatives to gain India’s trust. Some attempts seem to have been made. Newly appointed Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi, for example, met with the Indian ambassador to Nepal to discuss the purchase of vaccines. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has also stated that India has given assurances about Nepal’s being in the priority list. It has been reported that Minister Gyawali is likely to ink a pact on medical cooperation including Covid-19 vaccines during his upcoming visit to India.
While the Nepal government has repeatedly stated that it is making much effort to ensure that Nepalis are inoculated at the earliest possible date, there are no results to demonstrate that. Bangladesh, for example, has made an agreement with the Serum Institute of India to get 30 million doses. Sri Lanka is now fully prepared to sign a deal to get vaccines through COVAX. Similarly, Pakistan has decided to purchase 1.2 million doses of Sinopharm vaccines from China. It is distressing to see that Nepal has not made any agreement of this kind.
Nepal should obviously try to get as many doses as possible from India through multi-level engagements. However, looking only at India will not be prudent since its vaccines have global demand and it has extensive interests around the world, which it will try to fulfil through its vaccine diplomacy. Nepal should thus make efforts to secure millions of doses from other sources, such as China and global initiatives like COVAX.
For a country that is located between India and China, it would not be too hard for Nepal to ensure substantial quantities if diplomatic efforts are used proactively. As countries are competing in the region with the tool of pandemic diplomacy, small nations should also try to use both powers to their benefit. Additionally, India would be interested in vaccinating the Nepali population on a priority basis since the two countries share an open border, and it would be too risky to have uninoculated people wandering around. However, Nepal cannot afford to wait passively.
The shortcoming on the part of the government is that it did not extensively work out all the possibilities by trying to negotiate with multiple vaccine manufacturing countries. In addition, the recent split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party has kept the leaders and ministers busy in negotiations when they should be focusing on public health issues.
Show some compassion
While the vaccines produced in the Western world are likely to be less affordable, those produced in China and India are much cheaper. China has stated that its vaccines are affordable for developing countries and can be stored at higher temperatures (2-8 degrees Celsius), unlike Pfizer’s vaccines that need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. It is thus feasible for Nepal to focus on India and China for the major part of its vaccine requirement. In addition, it should deal with the related authorities to ensure vaccines through the COVAX initiative. If it looks that the vaccines from these sources will not be enough, some portions should also be bought from Western manufacturers.
It would be compassionate of the manufacturing countries to listen to French biologist Louis Pasteur who said that scientific inventions should not belong to a particular country but to the whole of humanity. It will help them to depart, at least slightly, from their absolute use of pandemic diplomacy and be more humanitarian while distributing vaccines around the world, including to small and developing countries like Nepal.