Global Pandemic Politics and India’s Diplomatic Efforts: An Assessment

Introduction

The outbreak of novel coronavirus has brought to light the lack of preparedness by the Indian government to deal with the unforeseen health emergency. The health infrastructure wasn’t ready to tackle a highly contagious disease like COVID-19. 

As of August 14, 2020, there are 661595 active cases in India. According to Our World in Data, the current testing rate is over half a million, The actual number can be far greater than being reported considering the testing potential and total population. 

The pandemic has yet again put public health in the centre of all discourses. The governments have overlooked the healthcare sector despite several promises and policy discussions. It is an appropriate time to set the misplaced priorities in the right direction. 

While grappling with pandemic and its fallout at the domestic front, India has also launched an offensive at the diplomatic front by engaging with affected countries in neighbourhood and beyond. This article attempts to understand India’s role in global pandemic politics, assess its diplomatic efforts and lastly, to look at the role India can play in the post-COVID world.

Image source: Reuters

India in the Global COVID-19 Politics

World’s two major economic powers, the United States and China, are using the pandemic for the blame game and scapegoating. Against the backdrop of heated exchanges between the United States and China, a resolution was put forward by the European Union and Australia on behalf of more than 100 countries including India — to discern the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of transmission in the human population — at the 73rd World Health Assembly. But the timeline, independence, and process of the probe are yet obscure. 

The pandemic has exposed the over-dependence of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) from China. The disruption of the supply chain during the pandemic led India to ban the export of 26 ingredients and medicines, including Hydroxychloroquine, to ensure adequate domestic supplies. Nevertheless, India had partly lifted the restrictions on the banned items on the diplomatic pressure from the United States. 

Recent Chinese aggression and the pandemic have collectively compelled India and the United States to stress on ‘self-reliance’ strategy to boost API production in order to end the over-dependence on China. 

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced solidarity trials for the vaccines. Nations have indulged themselves in the vaccine race to earn money and goodwill and to ensure a sufficient supply for their people. American biotechnology firm, Moderna, Inc., became the first company to successfully go through phase I of clinical trials. 

Russia has become the first nation to approve the public usage of COVID-19 vaccine, though there is international scepticism over the clinical trials process. India too, along with other nations, is in the race to develop the vaccines. 

India’s COVID Diplomatic Efforts 

Seeking an opportunity in the crisis, India has extended its effort to engage with nations amid COVID-19 crisis. India wants to send a signal to the world that it will promote human welfare above economic growth alone. India acknowledges the need for a new global template based on liberal values. India attended the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) summit after skipping the 2016 and 2019 summit. NAM aims to promote solidarity between the members amid an unprecedented crisis. India is supplying medicines to 59 members of NAM. A task force is made to create a database that will reflect member nations’ medical and other requirements. 

India, through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), is urging members to show solidarity and devise strategies to deal with the pandemic. India made a voluntary contribution offer of US $10 million for the proposed COVID-19 emergency fund. SAARC nations shall cooperate on rapid medical assistance, disease surveillance systems, and shared research platforms. India also joined the virtual G20 summit where the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of cooperation among the member countries to fight against the pandemic.

India has provided humanitarian aid to the island nations of the Indian Ocean during the pandemic. Indian Naval Ship Kesari carried the food items to the Maldives, and COVID-19 related essential medicines to Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, and Seychelles as part of a Mission Sagar initiative. India launched Mission Sagar in 2015 as a strategic move to engage in economic and security cooperation with its maritime neighbours. India also gave life-saving medicines to Sri Lanka earlier in April. 

Indian companies have been involved in exporting numerous vaccines for the lower-income and lower-middle-income countries. In this spirit, India has also shown interest in joining COVAX facility — a joint initiative co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — for the “rapid, fair and, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines”. World’s largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume, Serum Institute of India, has entered a partnership deal with Global Vaccine Alliance and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to supply the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax at affordable prices to the poor countries. 

Hydroxychloroquine/ Image for representation

India’s Role in the Post-COVID World

The Indian government should use the Indian systems of medicine such as Ayurveda to promote preventive healthcare as destitute people can’t afford modern curative healthcare facilities. India, famously known as the “pharmacy to the world,” should realize the need for strategic investment in the pharmaceutical sector. Also, India should leverage its traditional knowledge of alternative medicines to foster cooperation among the least developed countries.

As the world becomes more interconnected, we can expect frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases. India can play a pivotal role in the biotechnology sector. India should set up more biopharma industries and pump in more money in the existing ones to manufacture vaccines and other biologicals at an affordable cost. 

Last year, the South-East Asia Region bloc of the WHO had unanimously decided to elect India’s nominee as the chairman of the Executive Board for a three-year term. As India takes the leadership role, it has the opportunity to influence global health politics for the next three years. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Kuldeep Sharma

Kuldeep Sharma has completed his M.Tech in Biological Engineering from IIT Gandhinagar

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