India’s Vaccine Diplomacy

By Dania Sheikh

INDIA’S vaccine assistance programme, ‘Vaccination Maitri’ intends to distribute 160 million covid vaccines to 60 friendly countries by the end of March 2021. Under this programme, 10 million doses of Covishield vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India are to be gifted to the countries in the Immediate and extended neighbourhood like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar ,Afghanistan and Mauritius. Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla has also stated that India’s closest neighbours, friends and partners will receive privileged access to the vaccine. India has received immense appreciation from WHO for its Vaccination Maitri.

However, the motivation behind India’s Vaccine assistance programme is not entirely based on altruism, it partly stems from the need to counter China’s ascendency in the South Asian region. China’s BRI (belt and road initiative) which encompasses around 70 countries jeopardises India’s clout in the region. This context necessitates India to give foreign aid to its neighbours to maintain and expand its geopolitical influence.

As China’s Infrastructure programmes have attracted several South Asian countries, it becomes pertinent for India to resolve its outstanding conflicts with countries like Nepal, Bhutan and even Pakistan and garner their support in thwarting Chinese aggression. India’s good will gesture during this time of crises will enable India to cement good relations with its neighbours. Good relations with neighbours reduce the need to spend hefty amounts on defence and that money can be allocated to other sectors like health, infrastructure and education, so spending huge amounts on vaccine diplomacy is a win for India.

The vaccine developed by India’s Bharat Biotech has been given an emergency approval by Drug Controller General of India, this has led to an outage in the country as the the efficacy results of the phase 3 trials have not been made public but despite that it has been regarded as a more credible vaccine than the Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac. This can be ascertained from the fact that China’s closest ally Cambodia, has refused to accept the Chinese Vaccine and is pinning its hopes on the covax which is an initiative to distribute covid vaccines for the lower and middle income countries. Unlike India, China has not gifted vaccines to its allies. Despite the cordial relations shared between China and Pakistan, the latter has to purchase covid vaccine from China. This provides India an opportunity to mitigate its tensions with Pakistan by lending a helping hand during these testing time.

The NDA government has taken up several other goodwill measures as a part of its “Neighbourhood Policy”. NDA has attempted to build alliances even with the countries in the extended neighbourhood like Seychelles and Mauritius .Striking a partnership with these countries is essential for ensuring security and stability in the Indian Ocean region.

However, the government has received domestic criticism for undertaking this vaccine assistance programme as the masses in India are yet to be inoculated with the vaccine. The government claims that there are sufficient vaccines and that it plans to vaccinate 300 million workers over the next 6-8 months. About 3500 crore have been allocated for vaccines in the 2021 budget and the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitaram has stated that this figure could increase if the need arises.

Additionally, the plethora of leading pharmaceutical companies located in India make it the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. India has played a significant role in eradicating viruses in the past. It’s role in combating the public health crises in Africa and polio in the South East Asian region had received global recognition. It is this capacity to produce vaccines on a massive scale which grant it a leverage over China.

Vaccine diplomacy will not only enhance India’s stature in the international arena but will also help in effectively warding off the challenge posed by Covid. A pandemic cannot be eliminated by one country alone. In this regard, WHO director Tedros Adhanom had stated that, “Vaccine Nationalism will prolong the pandemic”. He has been critical of the ‘me first approach’ adopted by several countries which have worsened the chances of the poorest countries to acquire the vaccine.

Vaccine hoarding will only dampen the prospects of eliminating the virus. Heightened levels of globalisation mandate that countries cooperate for any strategy to succeed. While vaccines are offering some respite but the absence of a global strategy and the preoccupation with Vaccine Nationalism are great obstacles.

Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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