US President Joe Biden convened the inaugural summit of QUAD nations, consisting of Australia, India, Japan and US, on March 12. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said the other three agreed to finance a vaccine initiative led by India. There was, he cheerily added, “Wholesome appreciation of the Vaccine Maitri Initiative”. South Block’s optimistic spin took the lead from BJP’s top leadership, which, instead of postponing the state elections, were marshalling forces for an all-out attack. Additionally, the Kumbh dates were preponed from 2022, after debate amongst Hindu clerics, to April, coinciding with Election Commission’s irrational month-long election jamboree. Everything was in place for a perfect storm to hit India.
Some epidemiologists now claim they had warned the government in writing that a massive second wave was upon us. But the BJP was keen to capture power in West Bengal, the jewel of the East. The Kumbh, if held next year, would have followed the state election in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP could not miss out on a crore-strong religious gathering for political posturing.
The question arises whether the top BJP leadership exists in a bubble that neither internal warnings from scientists, or social media posts or stories in respected international journals, penetrate. Thus, unsurprisingly, the situation swung quickly from the Prime Minister proclaiming India a ‘Vishwa Guru’ or ‘Thought Leader’ to India becoming the global Covid hub. Countries began blocking flights from India. QUAD partner Australia added insult to injury by threatening to jail even their own citizens if they returned from India by surreptitious indirect travel. Pictures and videos, many very disturbing, of ill and dying patients, unable to get admission to hospitals, or perishing in hospitals when oxygen ran out, spread across the globe. Questions began being asked about India’s partnership with US, as not a vial of vaccine was promised despite millions of doses of Astra Zeneca lying unused in US warehouses, or the slightest public recognition of India’s existential crisis. Some blame rests on India, as a nationalistic government boasting about leading the fight against the epidemic and shipping millions of vaccines to developing nations, was reluctant to acknowledge and accept a national crisis, especially in the mist of important state elections.
Finally, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted on April 25, promising America was “deploying more supplies and resources”. Other nations also quickly rallied when they realised that India was unprepared for the Covid surge created by new variants. Experts concede India had confirmation bias as the political leadership jumped to accepted sero-surveys after the first wave last year. Estimates of those exposed to the virus were 20-30% in Delhi and 50-60% in Mumbai, and were apparently wrong. And with vaccinations commencing, Indian decision-makers calculated they would stay ahead of any fresh wave. But as against World Health Organisation’s norm for sequencing to be .3% of confirmed cases, in India the number was .05%.
In 2001, after the Bhuj earthquake, I was India’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi, and material collected by the community was flown to Ahmedabad but got piled up and it was difficult to quickly disburse to the needy. India was now accepting aid after 17 years from 40 odd nations. Each nation sends a different mix of medical equipment and medicines, some with non-English etchings, difficult for end-users to read. Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong claimed 61 flights had been sent in the past two weeks carrying 5,000 ventilators, 21,569 oxygen producers and 3,800 tonnes of medicines. Acknowledging such help from China which has still not withdrawn its troops from Indian areas in Ladakh, presented Delhi with a conundrum. China, in turn, was running down US assistance, late in coming, as well as underscoring Indian weakness for the world to see.
The distribution of essential relief material has to contend with toxic relations between the BJP-run union government and many opposition-ruled states, sharpened after BJP’s rout in West Bengal. The distribution of oxygen production units or concentrators, life-saving equipment like ventilators, anti-viral drugs, etc. needed to be handled efficiently and equitably. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) took some days to surface. Initially, to avoid charges of favouritism, material was rushed to central medical institutions all over India. But transparency is needed to explain on a daily basis what norms are followed. Meanwhile, courts were forced to intervene and figure out how smoothen supply chains linking oxygen producers to users, particularly in Delhi.
Late last night, the US government announced support for the waiver of Intellectual Property (IP) protections on Covid-19 vaccinations. US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai added that the US will “actively participate in WTO negotiations to make that happen”. This was an Indian demand and a major success for the developing world. So, the Indian path out of the crisis is clear. One, quickly get medical supplies to hospitals so that patients do not lie unattended. Two, gear up the vaccination programme by making producers deliver on time and as per the deal. Three, cut the pricing and procuring differentiations – the union government must procure vaccines at the same price for itself, for states, and ideally, even for private hospitals. Four, prepare for massive expansion of vaccine production in anticipation of the IP waiver clearing at the WTO by using existing and shut units all over India, particularly in the public sector.
(The writer is a former ambassador to Iran.)
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