The world has been going through a very rough and uncertain period since the onset of the COVID-19 disease back in March 2020. With destabilizing economies, increasing and worrying levels of unemployment in the population and now millions of people dying due to lack of oxygen it is one of the biggest health emergencies we will see in our lifetime. A small ray of hope through these difficult times is the vaccine for COVID-19 which at the moment of writing this article is in high demand. Needless to say, this vaccine has also acquired quite a bit of political value which has ended up in vaccines acting as a commodity of power. An examination of India’s play for power in exporting a lot of vaccines to other countries clearly showcases the aforementioned point. However, India has been finding itself alarmingly short of vaccines in the ongoing second wave which is a crucial stage of tackling the pandemic. It is only natural to think that the act of vaccine diplomacy could have hindered any chances of vaccinating as many Indian citizens as possible.
What is Vaccine Diplomacy?
Before analysing whether vaccine diplomacy was a key factor in the dire healthcare situation India is finding itself in now, let us try to understand what vaccine diplomacy is in the first place. Diplomacy can be broadly defined as a process between representatives of a state within a global system wherein they engage in dialogue to achieve objectives in a somewhat peaceful manner. Initially, this dialogue has primarily pertained to issues concerning ‘hard power’, that is war and peace as well as economics and trade. Recently, however, there has been an increasing focus on ‘soft issues’ which concern healthcare and environmental issues. This was mainly because of the realisation that these issues did have a significant impact on the global world order. When we bring in vaccines to this definition it becomes a mix of global health diplomacy and science diplomacy. Global health diplomacy is yet again a very broad term but it is quintessentially the situation wherein diplomats delve deeper into healthcare as a collective goal. Science diplomacy at a very basic level involves inculcating science into global decision-making to fulfill a goal. Global health diplomacy ultimately provided the foundation for vaccine diplomacy. The point being that any country can monopolise their respective vaccine manufacturing capabilities in these dire and desperate times in order to leverage diplomacy with other states.
Coming to India and the ever-emerging coronavirus situation across the globe it becomes plain to see just how effective vaccine diplomacy could be. It’s not just India that is getting in on this unique opportunity to elevate its own standing in the global status quo. China has been selling its vaccines to various countries across the world for months now with their Sinopharm vaccine. Similarly, Russia has utilised their Sputnik V vaccine to strengthen ties with other countries and garner support. Vaccine diplomacy has also been used by actors to weaken rival powers. For instance, China and Russia have come under scrutiny by the European and North American governments for apparently funding disinformation campaigns which were aimed at spreading falsehoods about vaccine manufactured in those countries. When Russia exported vaccines to Hungary it was viewed by some as a potential threat to challenge the ability of the European Union to tackle the virus efficiently.
The onset of the coronavirus has created an opportunity for countries to pursue ‘softer’ routes towards diplomacy. In a way, it ensures that the superpowers of the globe might just join hands despite their differences and eradicate a deadly virus even if it is purely in self-interest. A great example of this is when during the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union worked together to eradicate smallpox, yet another deadly disease from the face of the earth. While some might view it as an act of goodwill towards the people of the world, others might see it as a way to outrace each other in a competition of sorts considering the tremendous tensions between these two superpowers during the Cold War.
In addition to all this, it also prevents ‘vaccine nationalism’ which is a warped sense of the traditional notion of nationalism. Vaccine nationalism bolsters an “every man for himself” approach to vaccine production. While well-developed countries might be able to easily adopt this approach and save their own populations the same cannot be said for other countries who continue to struggle with an alarmingly high number of daily cases. The simple truth is if enough diplomatic efforts and time is put into it, logistically efficient distribution of the covid vaccine is viable on a global scale. This pseudo sense of nationalism will be quite detrimental in the long run of tackling the pandemic as a whole.
The Consequences of India’s Vaccine Diplomacy
India has gotten the chance to play a more than a crucial role in the global effort of tackling the pandemic. Mainly because India is home to the Serum Institute of India (SII) which cut out a partnership with various international organizations to manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. India’s diplomatic initiative the ‘VaccineMaitri’ program was put on a high pedestal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi wherein many neighbouring states would receive Indian-made vaccines right away. The most important thing to note about India’s export program was that it came about at a time when the virus seemed to be in a state of retreat in India. This act of diplomacy received mixed responses among the people of India initially. It is only natural that concern is expressed when India having one of the world’s largest populations decides to export vaccines and that too at alarmingly high quantities on the pretence of diplomacy. Despite all these anxious sentiments among many in the nation, the Central government was able to maintain the narrative of a ‘Super-power nation’ up until the second wave came up.
What made the situation even worse is that the second wave was largely fuelled by-election rallies for Assembly elections taking place in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Needless to say, the narrative of a self-sustaining India that was painstakingly kept alive by the government quickly fell apart with the arrival of the second wave. The lack of vaccines, oxygen, and hospital beds have all been quite nakedly exposed at this point. At such a juncture it becomes increasingly difficult to export vaccines at the initial rate and the Indian vaccine diplomacy program came to a stop. In hindsight, it now seems as though India should have also been asking for help rather than push this false narrative as a saviour. Especially considering the fact that the Indian government has endangered and killed off many lives indirectly because of the aggressive rate at which they exported vaccines. A more regulated approach might have fared much better in terms of achieving diplomacy while taking every possible measure in keeping one’s own population inoculated. This has also showcased an aggressive foreign policy that comes to view any foreign assistance as an insult. That is the foreign policy has become far more focused on image management rather than making any actually useful tangible changes that might benefit the citizens of India.
In the end, vaccine diplomacy is a very smooth diplomatic move in order to make friends and develop strong ties with other nations. But it should be taken as a calculated risk and not an all-out approach that has the potential to endanger a large part of the world’s population. Priority should have been given to Indian citizens first and then for exporting outside the nation. Funds could have been allocated earlier to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen and prepare the healthcare system. But all of that is too little, too late. The best thing the Indian government can do is to adapt their foreign policy into giving up their superiority complex and to ask for help from other states as well. It is long overdue that the Indian government take accountability for their actions that have resulted in the loss of millions of lives and own up to it. Vaccine diplomacy must not come at the cost of Indian lives.
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