Vaccine Maitri is a pragmatic response to the pandemic
It is heartening to see the massive global response to a critical moment in India’s fight against Covid-19. India’s friends and partners have stepped up to the challenge of managing the second wave hitting India. Singapore has donated cryogenic oxygen tanks and Australia is shipping oxygen, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Thailand has pitched in, and so has Israel. Saudi Arabia is shipping liquid oxygen to India while the United Arab Emirates is airlifting high-capacity oxygen tankers.
In Europe, France, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union have all reached out. The UK is shipping over “600 pieces of vital medical equipment” which will include 495 oxygen concentrators, 120 non-invasive ventilators, and 20 manual ventilators.
Russian aid is aimed at helping India with the shortages of remdesivir as well as providing oxygen concentrators and generators. Though China too offered its help, in a curious twist the largest cargo flight operator from China to India, the Chinese State-owned Sichuan Airlines, has suspended its services to India for two weeks.
The US response has also been strong though it came late as compared to the others and despite repeated efforts by India to get the ban lifted on raw materials need for vaccine manufacturing. After what seemed like an unusually prolonged silence from the top echelons of the Biden administration, finally Washington responded at multiple levels. While providing material help, it is also trying to identify “sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available for India.”
This show of support from around the world is a morale booster for a nation facing an unprecedented crisis. But it also underscores the role that India has played over the last year in keeping the global supply chains open. There has been questioning of India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative in some quarters as the crisis at home has unfolded in the past few week. Reasonable questions can be asked about the need for India to supply vaccines and other products to the world at large when there was a crisis at home.
In some ways, the answer to this can be relatively simple: That this is rooted in India’s civilisational ethos. While it might be commonplace for some nations to suggest that it is in the interest of the wider world to focus exclusively on their citizens, it’s not a narrative that India can uphold at any level. At a time when the Indian situation looked stable, it was morally right for India to support other parts of the world that were in greater pain.
But it is important to recognise that global support for India is also a reciprocal appreciation of New Delhi’s efforts over the last few months. From supplying hydroxychloroquine to more than 100 nations to providing 64 million doses of vaccines to more than 80 nations, India’s imprint on global health has been substantive. And as the Gulf nations got hit hard as a result of several nations banning food exports and declining oil demand, India ensured uninterrupted supply of food and essential items.
Where some of the richest and most powerful nations in the world turned inwards and erected barriers, India opened its heart and purse strings as a responsible member of the world community. International relations is a ruthless space. Nations worry, first and foremost, about their own security and survival. But when the question is of global survival, the lines between national and global inevitably get blurred. India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative remains a pragmatic response to an unprecedented challenge facing humanity. The debate about India’s response to Covid-19 will and should continue with the aim of enhancing India’s ability to tide over a similar crisis. For India’s response represents a unique convergence of idealism and realism in strategic thinking. Where the idealists can point to this as a response to the better angels of our nature, for the realists this is a way of India saving itself by trying to save the world.
Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations at the India Institute at King’s College, London and head of strategic studies at Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal