The many dimensions of Vaccine Maitri | Daily News

The many dimensions of Vaccine Maitri

As oxygen becomes a luxury for a majority of the populace in New Delhi, India is gravely reeling under the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hailed as the world’s third largest pharma hub and positioned at the forefront offering gratis (and also commercial) medical equipment and vaccines to a host of countries, India is now itself scampering across the globe for COVID-related aid. In fact, its flagship initiative Vaccine Maitri aimed at steering forward New Delhi’s foreign policy, giving it a robust presence thereby creating a safe spot in the neighbourhood and beyond might just have fallen flat.

As India currently sits at the top of the highly infected countries across the world with cases soaring at the rate of 169 infections per 100,000 people, aid has acquired an altogether new dimension in such testing times. Intended towards building positive synergies in tackling the intricate nexus of socio-political and environmental challenges, particularly COVID-19, development partnerships can be viewed from the lens of a realist-cum-idealist approach.

Idealists will call New Delhi’s vaccine friendship initiative as a thought process embedded in our cultural values and principles. Assisting those in trouble is one such example. On the contrary, realists would argue that this initiative ensures India’s firm presence and visibility in the geopolitical canvas. In fact, development partnerships can be termed as a refined version of aid in contemporary times. Has India’s vaccine diplomacy under the broader umbrella of development partnerships nosedived, in turn jeopardising its national interests?

A strategic gameplay

Although New Delhi’s move to join the bandwagon of vaccine diplomacy came at a time when the multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) failed in responding promptly to the pandemic, one cannot possibly ignore the sustainable partnerships that were led and built by India. However, it was carved out of strategic geopolitical interests. In a bid to appease and woo the hearts of its immediate neighbour Nepal, Vaccine Maitri was kick-started earlier this year by dispatching one million doses to the Himalayan nation. This can be particularly viewed in the aftermath of the burgeoning Chinese influence in the region and also the recurrent territorial squabbles between New Delhi and Kathmandu. In addition, India’s vaccine outreach was not restricted only to the South Asian nations but also extended to a multitude of countries in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Eastern Europe and some regions of Central Asia; an astounding 66 million doses have been distributed to 95 countries so far.

Considering the massive outbreak of the deadly pandemic, international cooperation definitely holds the pivot in solving this crisis; an opportunity which New Delhi has rightly identified and gladly grabbed at the right time. Gaining strategic leverage for its foreign policy goals in the geopolitical context is also acceptable. However, compromising on the inoculation demands of its own citizens is a glaring mistake from New Delhi’s side. Early into the first stages of the pandemic when scientists were rushing to develop a vaccine, India, taking advantage of its pharmaceutical bent, should have systematically charted its distribution amongst the ailing population. Although Vaccine Maitri is rightly being hailed as an “out-of-turn” humanitarian gesture displayed by India, its focus remains primarily on the commercial side. For instance, the commercially sold COVID-19 vaccines by New Delhi stands at 35.7 million compared to the free offerings of 10.7 million.

COVID Aid: Lessons for India

Given the current upsurge in COVID cases resulting in a colossal breakdown of the country’s health infrastructure, New Delhi is compelled to now seek assistance from other nations. Responding to New Delhi’s plea, the EU, for instance, has extended its support through Team Europe by pledging to provide oxygen and medicines. The USA’s COVID aid, on the contrary, came after a series of backlashes. It initially refused to lift the embargo on export of raw materials required for manufacturing the vaccine but in a turnaround, ultimately agreed to dispatch testing kits, ventilators and PPEs. Although President Biden has brought a whiff of fresh diplomacy in comparison to his predecessor Trump especially on climate change and migration, their realist “America first” attitude remains intact.

Giving precedence to its own citizens, Washington ensured that vaccinating Americans topped their priority list. This is something that India should have done for its bustling population right in the beginning, instead of doling out vaccines all around the globe. Agreeably New Delhi has been partnering quite handsomely well with major economies of Japan, Australia and the USA, for instance as part of the QUAD. Here, it has pledged to work towards boosting the manufacturing of COVID vaccines in the region. But then again foresight on the vulnerable and susceptible domestic front is also equally essential. With the basket of vaccines now gradually growing, India’s development partnership must take a balanced view so as to fulfill its international friendship initiatives and also the national inoculation demands. It is necessary to churn out an appropriate solution which ensures that the world is protected against Coronavirus and at the same time, one’s own people are covered as well. (Observer Research Foundation)

(The writer is an Associate Fellow of the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, India.)