International cooperation during the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in globalization. Ten countries are reported to have cornered three-quarters of the world’s corona vaccines. 55 countries have the remaining 25%. 130 countries have nothing.
Conducting international relations involves thinking also of the consequences of our actions. We cannot be quick to blame others, and then turn around and act without thinking of the results our actions produce on others. India is part of BRICS and SAARC and IBSA and Quad and cannot always quantify the benefits of each. We should avoid threadbare analysis of every remark of every foreign leader. As we question our leaders, people from other countries (except China) question theirs.
Russia, UK, France, EU, Singapore, Australia, Germany and the USA among other countries are rushing oxygen generating equipment and other medical supplies to India. The UAE, with which our relations were iffy for many decades, lit up the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, with our national colours and the message “Stay Strong India”.
Despite our own constraints, we have helped others willingly when they needed our help. Countries that can are helping us in our moment of need.
Our relations with the USA have always been good, their relations with us have had their ups and downs.
Like us, Americans are amazingly generous, and like us, they do the right thing after they have done everything else. We are very happy that as a result of sustained pressure by our Government, our diaspora, our American friends and international and Indian TV channels, the US has set aside its ancient 1950 Korean War era Defence Production Act and is supplying essential Covid-fighting equipment and medicines to India, and to some other countries. An all-of-country and all-of-people people approach to get the US to see reason and put people over profit has succeeded.
That the Foreign Ministers and Security Advisors spoke to each other suggests that the most severe public health crisis that India is facing is more than a health issue.
Now the Heads of Government have spoken, boosting our message of mutual support at the highest level.
America’s biggest weakness is its arrogance, expressed for decades through such absurd concepts as exceptionalism and manifest destiny. India’s biggest strength is its humanity and compassion, expressed in its belief of the world is one family.
For us, all lives matter. We did not boast about our support to America in 2020. We hope the USA will also suspend intellectual property requirements for more Indian companies to make vaccines in India.
For most of the last century, the world was divided into two opposing camps. Their military strengths, although never directly tested against each other, were adequate for mutually assured destruction.
Then we had a decade or more of unilateralism, during which, in the words of a pompous American Senator, when the world dialled 911, it rang in Washington. And in the last decade, we have new challenges, new balances, new alignments, with hardened enemies becoming best friends, and best friends turning inveterate enemies. In this uncertain world when democracy and freedom are being confronted by authoritarianism and repression, the American way of life needs a strong partner with shared values and ideals. India is the strongest possible partner.
I have been in diplomacy long enough to understand that delayed decisions or hasty actions like what we have just seen with the US have repercussions that last for generations. People may not long remember what we say today, they will always recall what we do today.
America’s perceived callousness in this matter has seriously depleted its friendship capital. All international and national media reporting on this episode has drawn a contrast between India’s generous response last year and America’s pusillanimous, parsimonious approach. It has now moved into damage control mode. America almost lost the war in India’s heart without fighting it.
Is this how an “ally and partner” is dealt with? If one says that alliance dharma does not allow any concession to partners, then such a partnership is useless.
The power of the social media and the clout of the Indian diaspora in the USA are evident. I recall a 1950s era joke, told to me by an American Congressman in Washington DC. The leader of America cried before God about his problems and God suggested remedies. The Soviet leader cried about his problems and God was sad but offered some solutions. The Indian leader cried about his challenges, and God cried too! That was the then perception of India—poverty-stricken, crisis ridden, perpetual beggars, over populated.
We recognize that we faced perennial shortages. I waited 25 years for our first landline telephone, 20 years for my first Indian two-wheeler and 15 years for our first Indian car. The perception of India in America (and the world) was transformed at the turn of the millennium, first when tens of thousands of our IT specialists helped deal with the Y2K bug, reinforcing our reputation as an IT hyper power, our 2003 decision not to accept any more Official Development Assistance, our outreach during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when we flew 25 tonnes of supplies to the US and our immediate support to America during the first Chinese virus attack in 2020.
But old mindsets change slowly. Do you recall the ghoulish delight with which journalists reported our discomfiture as millions of migrants struggled to get home last year? Do see their vulturous pleasure in reporting oxygen and hospital bed scarcity in 2021?
The wisdom of Chanakya is totally relevant today. 2,400 years ago, he had said: “Whoever helps you at the time of illness…is your true brother in the real sense.”
Joe Biden seems to have woken up and I quote from his tweet: “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need.” Of course, America’s quid-pro-quo attitude persists, as Joe Biden’s tweet shows: You helped us so we will help you.
There is unbelievable goodwill for America in India. The American dream is every Indian’s aspiration, without of course, sacrificing our cultural moorings. I do not know of too many Indian families (we have some 250 million) that do not have a relative or a friend or a friend of a friend or a village mate among the 4 million Indian diaspora in America. The Americans claim they love us too.
May I tell the American President what the 16-17th century Indian poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan said?
Biden dhaga prem ka
Mat todo chatkaye
Tute phir se na jude
Jude gaanth pad jaye
Leadership is based on capability and moral authority. America has the capability and is now making a sincere effort to regain its moral authority.
Immediately after Independence and again in the mid-1960s we faced an unprecedented food and foreign exchange crisis. American loaned us 2 million tonnes of wheat in 1951 and sold us 9 and 11 million tonnes of subsidized wheat in 1966-67 paid in Indian rupees, under its PL 480 programme, while we paid for the transport. US agronomist Normal Borlaug helped usher in the Green Revolution. In 1984, we handled the Bhopal gas tragedy with maturity and dignity.
In 1965 and again in 1998 following our nuclear tests, the US imposed sanctions but then fought hard to get through the 123 United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Act of 2008.
The CEO of the Serum Institute of India Ltd—which is licensed to produce hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca and Novavax—told a World Bank panel in early 2021 that the US action in blocking the export of certain key items, including bags, filters, vials, glass, plastic and stoppers might cause serious bottlenecks. This is the same country whose much-maligned former President Donald Trump had tweeted last year: “Thank you India, and the Indian people for the decision on HCQ. Will not be forgotten!”
Did someone say “vaccine nationalism”?
International cooperation during the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in globalization. The UN Secretary General called this vaccine war wildly uneven and unfair, pointing out in February 2021 that at this critical moment, vaccine equity was the biggest moral test before the global community. Ten countries are reported to have cornered three-quarters of the world’s corona vaccines. 55 countries have the remaining 25%. 130 countries have nothing.
Many high-to-middle income countries have worked to secure a supply of vaccines large enough to vaccinate their entire population several times over. Canada, that begged us for vaccines before Virus II hit us, has bought enough to vaccinate its entire population five times. I have seen estimates that 80% of people in low-resource countries will not have received the vaccination by the end of 2021.
The World Health Organization’s COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries. The USA is sitting on tens of millions of doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine because the FDA has not approved it yet. This is not the America that I know, and that the world looks up to for leadership.
In January, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had lamented that “the rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines…to the exclusion of other countries in the world that most need this.”
As of date, India has gifted about 80 million doses of the vaccine to other nations, and many in India are now asking why. In a strong assurance to the international community Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the virtual UNGA meeting in September 2020 that “as the largest vaccine producing country in the world, I want to (assure you that) India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis.” In January 2021, the UN Secretary General had dubbed India’s vaccine manufacturing capability as mankind’s greatest asset in fighting the virus and thanked India for gifting 200,000 doses for UN peacekeepers. Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “It is great to see India’s leadership in scientific innovation and vaccine manufacturing capability as the world works to end the Covid-19 pandemic.”
India helped over 150 countries in 2020, including some of the richest, when they were reeling under the virus attack. In March 2021, at their first virtual meeting, the leaders of the US, Australia, India and Japan had agreed to deliver one billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to much of Asia by the end of 2022, with India’s manufacturing capability. In a globalized age, it is not enough for any country to focus only on its own challenges because infectious diseases do not need passports or visas to travel from one country to another. But there is no gratitude in international relations.
Asked if he felt indebted to Russia for helping crush the Hungarian uprising of 1848, the Austrian Prime Minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, replied: “Austria will astound the world with her ingratitude.” This kind of cold bloodedness is common in the Old World, reflecting the view that selflessness, faith, trust, have little place in the life of nations.
While Americans cheered President Joe Biden’s announcement that the US would have enough vaccines to inoculate every citizen by the end of July 2021, the rest of the world was coldly silent. Biden’s triumphalism was grating. Leadership is based on moral authority and capability. America has the capability, it should not lose the moral authority.
The vaccine raw material shortage presents the same dynamic as personal protective equipment and ventilator scarcity at the start of the pandemic: a surge in world demand, not enough to go around and countries wanting to keep supplies at home. In 2020, the world, led by India, responded collectively and we tackled the issue. In April 2021, with the overwhelming shortage of coronavirus vaccines, and with India banning exports owing to domestic compulsions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lamented that they “allowed” India to become a major pharmaceutical producer in the world, while the industry declined in Europe. While this kind of atavistic arrogance among the 15% of the world’s population that ruled the other 85% for 200 years does not surprise me, she is obviously upset that we are not honouring our contracts. On the other hand, Australia’s Foreign Minister graciously said that “India’s generosity and leadership in providing vaccines to our region is appreciated. We will continue to work closely together to respond to this global crisis.” Despite Angela Merkel’s insensitive comments, Germany is sending oxygen generation plants, as are France and the UK. Singapore, India’s best friend in Southeast Asia, is airlifting oxygen supplies. Russia has offered 400,000 Remdesivir injections every week and the Sputnik vaccine. Even China has offered to help, although I hope we don’t accept it as, even apart from the pretty uncertain quality of their stuff, they will ask for territory in return, given their past record.
On 23 April 2021 Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged leading oxygen manufacturers and industries to keep diverting their oxygen supply for medical use. In a meeting with Chief Ministers he called for “united efforts” to fight the pandemic and said the main reason for India’s success during the first wave of the pandemic was “our united efforts and united strategy”. He reiterated that “We have to work together. If we work together our resources won’t look scarce.”
Indian Railways has started Oxygen Express. Empty oxygen tankers are being transported by the Air Force to reduce one-way travel time. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is speeding up tests on ventilators designed by it.
I do sincerely believe that we are now tackling the crisis on a war-footing with an all-of-country approach. I hope our judicial system hands down death sentences to hoarders and black marketeers, deliberate killers.
Where did we go wrong? Our pandemic response was hampered by a sharp rise in political tribalism. Confident in our medical prowess, we could not imagine how deadly and disruptive a wildly contagious pathogen could be in its second phase. We have taken the first step for disease surveillance through the Aarogya Setu app, that is being constantly improved. It will help us to identify and track outbreaks before they get out of control. Public health is like defence. The systems we maintain during peacetime are the ones that allow us to succeed at war. Our response protects our national security and our economic prosperity. The “chalta hai” attitude that defined so much of our actions, has gone forever.
India is seeing a new birth. There is a saying that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. May I add that when the going gets toughest, the Indians get going?
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.