Stuck between a rock and a hard placeWith increasing opposition at home on the export of vaccines, Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy is conflicting with domestic politics.
'While our nation is facing vaccine starvation, more than 6 crore doses of vaccines have been exported,' opposition leader Rahul Gandhi wrote to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi last week. 'Was the export of vaccines also an ‘oversight’, like many other decisions of this government, or an effort to garner publicity at the cost of our citizens?' Other parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too chimed in. Its national spokesperson Raghav Chadha wrote, 'I wish to ask the Government of India as to what its priority is—the people of Delhi or of Dominican Republic? The people of Maharashtra or of Mauritius?... [humanitarian aid] cannot be at the cost of Indian citizens.'
On the other hand, Modi defended India’s decision to export the Covishield vaccine by saying, ‘We understand fully, that mankind will not defeat the pandemic unless all of us, everywhere, regardless of the colour of our passports, come out of it. That is why, this year, despite many constraints, we have supplied vaccines to over 80 countries.’ Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar outlined India’s position by emphasising on equitable access to vaccines, 'because we all know that no one will be safe till everyone is safe.’ Further, he argued, ‘India must rise as an enlightened power. [It will] not close the door on others.’
India has been struggling to contain the current wave of Covid-19, with worst-hit states like Maharashtra issuing stringent orders to contain the spread, despite not declaring a lockdown. Several states have reported a shortage of vaccines, despite 108 million doses already being administered domestically, hence the opposition’s remarks. Massive gatherings at events such as the Kumbh Mela and state election campaigns have not helped the country either. Its temporary moratorium on the export of Covid-19 vaccines has affected countries like ours that are dependent on the multilateral COVAX facility and purchases from the Serum Institute of India. There are now reports that India may resume vaccine exports only by June.
The Serum Institute of India’s (SII) vaccine production has faced several setbacks, notably a fire in January; its chief has said the US has restricted exports on key materials needed to produce the vaccines, and that the company requires at least ₹30 billion to bump up production. The WHO-backed COVAX programme should have received 100 million doses by May; it has received only 28 million. And AstraZeneca, the pharma company that developed the Covishield vaccine, has sent a legal notice to SII over the delays. Several media outlets have highlighted the government’s tardy efforts to scale up vaccine production, with Business Standard writing, ‘The vaccine roll-out has been hampered by the Indian state’s customary arrogance and its disdain for the private sector.’
Despite these domestic challenges, the Indian government’s commitment to deliver vaccines to Nepal during the telephonic conversation between the two foreign ministers is reassuring. But with increasing opposition at home on the export of vaccines, combined with India’s own challenges in containing the current wave, means Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy is coming into conflict with its domestic situation.
In an unprecedented scenario such as the times we are currently living in, scaling up vaccine production and exports while supplying to the domestic population would always have been a challenge. Had the current wave not occurred, India may even have succeeded in matching exports with domestic demands. Delhi now may give emergency approvals to foreign vaccines that have been approved by the US, UK and Japan, and those approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), besides approving the Russian-made Sputnik-V, which a pharma company will produce locally. But the key, as reports suggest, will be a commitment from the Indian government to buy a certain quantity of doses.
On the other hand, it is most noticeable that the US, which has played a key role in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a multilateral programme initiated in 1988, and has provided nearly $2 billion out of the $11 billion spent so far on the eradication programme, has focused solely on vaccinating its population in the current pandemic. While its investments in vaccine development and procurement have so far been highly successful—36 percent of the population have received one dose and 22 percent have received both doses—its non-internationalist approach to the pandemic raises difficult questions about the existing world order that the US leads, at least from the perspective of developing countries like ours.
Two countries have taken the lead in supplying the world with vaccines—India and China. The latter had exported nearly 115 million doses by the end of March, while it has given vaccines to nearly 80 countries and three international organisations. In Nepal, too, although the grant of 800,000 vaccines was stuck in Beijing due to logistical issues, the Sinopharm Verocell vaccine has allowed its vaccination programme to be resumed, albeit for a short period.
While the churn in the global order is exemplified by these instances, in many ways they also point to the limits of what multilateral organisations like the WHO can do in the current era. The strain foreign policy puts on domestic politics, especially in a democracy, is now stark in the case of India. From the other side of the mirror, if India ramps up its production capacities to supply to its domestic population at the cost of vaccine exports, that will raise similar questions about its diplomacy too.
Finally, the pandemic—and the response to it—has also sharpened the cries of nationalism, as seen in the pointed critiques by Indian opposition leaders (although the BJP itself rose to power by emphasising ethnonationalism). Who matters more, as the AAP leader asked—your voters, or people from other countries?