G Parthasarathy

Vaccine diplomacy amidst Himalayan tensions

G Parthasarathy | Updated on May 11, 2021

Vaccines being manufactured at the Serum Institute which is a key supplier to the UN-backed Covax programme   -  REUTERS

India will have to do a balancing act by maintaining defence ties with Russia and the interests of the Quad

The last major pandemic that India confronted was the influenza pandemic between 1918 and 1920, which was the outcome of the worldwide ‘Spanish Flu’. That pandemic came in the wake of the First World War. It is also referred to as the ‘Bombay Influenza’ or the ‘Bombay Fever’ in India.

Some 17-18 million Indians lost their lives in that pandemic. India, thus suffered the largest loss of lives worldwide, in the immediate aftermath of a war, wherein 74,187 Indian soldiers dies and 67,000 were wounded. This pandemic commenced in India, immediately following the return of Indian troops from the Great War.

Just over a century later India has been hit by a second global pandemic, commencing early last year. While India dealt effectively with the first wave of the novel coronavirus last year, few in India or abroad had envisaged that a new strain of the virus would engulf India in 2021.

While this virus is similar to its UK variant, it is more potent and damaging than its earlier version, because of its higher transmissibility, which is causing havoc in India. Unlike in the UK, where lockouts were rigidly implemented, the Union Government’s policies of observing norms like distancing and wearing of masks, are not as stringently observed as the British did, except for a hurriedly planned and executed lockdown, commencing virtually at he same time as the pandemic started last year

Despite these developments, there was strangely a feeling that one could proceed as usual with public contacts and functions. We are yet to see how seriously the country is going to be hit by the total lack of social discipline, amidst the vast crowds of thousands who flocked the election meetings in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

What added to the dangers was a feeling of nonchalance about moving around in large political gatherings, without masks, which leaders of virtually all political parties, dispensed with. Moreover, no religion requires one to endanger human lives during pilgrimages. This basic common sense was also not availed of, while State Governments, with tacit backing from New Delhi, allowed and fostered pilgrimages across the country.

The larger question one has to ask is whether it is at all wise to allow people to move around and gather in crowded surroundings, amidst a pandemic.

Pilgrimages to the homes of the holy places of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been invariably curtailed when faced with dangers to the lives of pilgrims. Saudi Arabia hosted 2.5 million pilgrims last year, while mere 10,000 are expected this year. France has also placed severe restrictions on pilgrimages. The Holy Month of Ramadan saw a virtually empty Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Recognising the dangers of Covid-19, the authorities have ensured that holy Christian and Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, France and, indeed, in all places of worship across Europe and Asia are closed or permit very little entry.

India was regarded highly, as a model country, that had managed the pandemic with skill and generosity in providing medical aid across the world, in 2020. By May 2021 India had provided vaccines to 87 countries, with particular attention focused, on its Asian and African neighbours.

Changed scenario

It, however, casts a totally different shadow on world affairs today. Its vaccine production barely meets domestic needs. New Delhi is however, looking forward to large supplies AstraZeneca vaccines from the US, even as its own supplies are set to resume and expand. Russia now holds out the promise of both supplies and joint production of its highly effective Sputnik vaccines in India. Kiril Dmitriev, Head of the Sputnik Programme, envisages the production of 850 million doses in India this year.

While there has been criticism of India’s management of its vaccine industry, the biggest new addition to vaccine production in the country will come when the US’ Johnson and Johnson vaccines commence production next year. India will be producing one billion J&J vaccine doses in 2022, for which trials have already commenced.

This agreement for this project was a signed during the first Quad Summit, whose participants were US President Joe Biden and the Prime Ministers of India, Australia and Japan. In the meantime, following talks between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his American counterpart Jake Sullivan, the US has agreed to make available raw materials required by India immediately for expanding its growingly popular indigenous Covaxin vaccine, manufactured by Bharat Biotech. India has conducted its diplomacy skilfully, when it comes to the most critical problem it faces today. It has refused to buckle to threats of sanctions, if it continues its defence relationship with Russia. New Delhi has made it clear that its deal on getting the highly sophisticated S 300 surface-to-air missiles from Russia will go through.

It remains to be seen how the US reacts, as placing sanctions on India’s efforts to strengthen its air defences, would not exactly serve the interests of the Quad. President Biden has made some progress in his efforts to get major European powers like Germany and France, on board to deal with China’s expansionist policies across the Indo-Pacific. While a divided Asean will sit on the fence, despite the seizures of its maritime space and territories by China, countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which had their maritime frontiers violated by China, will welcome efforts to roll back Chinese expansionism.

A clear signal has been sent by India to China that it cannot be “business as usual” with it. India has refused to consider offers by Chinese telecom companies for the coming 5G networks in the country. In the meantime, Delhi cannot to ignore the fact that China shows no inclination to pull back from areas occupied by it in Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang Plains, last year.

Sections of the Pakistan government, including its army Chief General Bajwa, appear keen presently, to avoid tensions with India, given the uncertainties in what the scenario will be, after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. But, one should have no doubt there are sections of the military and Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, who think otherwise.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on May 10, 2021

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