Vaccine Diplomacy: A Tool to Garner Soft Power
Updated: Apr 6
The earth has completed one revolution around the sun however, there have been no significant changes in the situation as compared to the last year. Many people call it a 'Post Pandemic' world but ironically, the ‘Post’ is still not in sight as the world contemporarily witnesses an exponential surge in the COVID- 19 cases, new mutations are emerging around the world and the catastrophe prevails with a death toll of 2.8 million and still counting. However, amidst all the darkness, hue, and cry, the new year brought with itself a flicker of hope in the form of different vaccines developing around the world to aid mankind in its fight against this deadly virus.
Image Credits: New York Times
The ‘Political Declaration on Equitable Global Access to COVID-19 Vaccines’ had garnered the support of more than 180 UN member states who were expected to treat the vaccines as ‘Global Public Good’, but in contrast to this in the practical realm, they have failed to realize these objectives. Most of the developed countries who claim to be the leaders and providers of the globe are the first ones who have tried to keep the warmth of this flicker of hope restricted within their territorial boundaries by giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘Vaccine Nationalism’. Under this phenomenon, countries are blindly participating in the ugly race of hoarding vaccine doses many times over what their population will ever require. According to a report by BBC, the USA has ordered doses twice its population, the UK 3.5 times, and Canada over 5 times. However, India, a third-world developing country has chosen a humanitarian path and has stood true to its age-old commitment to ‘ Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. The country has rekindled the flicker of hope into a flame by putting in efforts towards the achievement of global inoculations.
India has used its immense pharma capacity to not just produce vaccines for itself but also to manufacture the same for other countries. Firstly, it has been accepting commercial contracts for vaccines from myriad countries. Secondly, it has also offered to donate 1.1 billion vaccines to COVAX, a joint initiative taken up by GAVI and WHO. Thirdly, it has shown its goodwill gesture by granting vaccines as gifts to many third-world countries. It is fulfilling these commitments under its policy of ‘Vaccine Maitri’ and subsequently, engaging in ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’. The dedication to the cause can be traced in the speech delivered by the UN Ambassador of the country in UNGA, where he says, “ In fact, as of today we have supplied more vaccines globally than have vaccinated our own people.”
Recently, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro compared India's role of providing the life-saving vaccine to the world community to the role of Lord Hanuman in providing Sanjeevani Booti in the Ramayana. Today, India is the production hub of two major vaccines i.e Covishield, the Astrazeneca-Oxford vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, indigenously developed by Bharat Biotech. Along with these, many other vaccine candidates are lined up for approval. The vaccine produced has been successfully distributed to around 94 countries which include countries standing at different levels of the economic spectrum ranging from the high-income ones like the UK, Canada, Australia to the low-income ones in Africa, Asia, and South America.
You can Change Your Friends but not Your Neighbours
Tracing through the pages of history, it is evident that India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ has been of prime importance in shaping its foreign policy. This has come into the picture yet again while distributing vaccines. India has shown that these neighbours hold a special place in its heart by granting them substantive doses of vaccines as gifts, meanwhile also using this opportunity to mend the strained relations with a few of them. In this drive, the decision-makers at New Delhi are not just covering its immediate neighbours but also extending the help to other distant neighbours located in the Indian Ocean. Many experts view these efforts with an underlying aim to extend India’s soft-power in South Asia.
In the past couple of years, tension has been brewing between India and some of these countries. Bangladesh has been upset with the developments in the CAA and NRC Bill and the remarks of the Home Minister, Amit Shah referring to Bangladeshis as ‘termites’ have further soured the relation. Nepal, one of the closest ally of India is also at loggerheads due to some border conflicts and arguments over the new map. There have also been a few disputes regarding transgression of territorial waters with Sri Lanka and; with Pakistan, India is currently at a deadlock with the No- Dialogue policy ever since the Pulwama attack.
In the face of the current situation, vaccine diplomacy paves a way for a benevolent neighbourhood.
Countering the Dragon
The Dragon, China, has been attempting to spread its wings across the world and has been successful in unfurling its strategic, economic, infrastructural and cultural influence in Asia particularly. In the past decade, its endeavor to interfere in the South Asian region specifically and its attempts to increase its dominance in the Indian Ocean region, the strategic backyard for India, has not gone unnoticed. It can be seen as a strategic move to hit India in the areas where it traditionally dominated. The Belt and Road Initiative, the building of strategic ports in Sri Lanka, ties with Pakistan, lending of bank loans, signing of free trade agreements, dominance in RCEP are a few moves to jeopardize India’s influence and subsequently build its own. Here, Vaccine Diplomacy by India proves to be a concrete step to counter Beijing’s rising aspirations.
In the vaccination drive, India is proving its mantle by superseding China in credibility, affordability and timely delivery of vaccines. Half of Brazil's population voted against China’s Sinovac and China also failed in delivering 3 lakh vaccine doses to Myanmar, while India outshined China in both these instances by earning the trust of the Brazilians and delivering 17 lakh doses to Myanmar. Also, while China has been secretive about releasing its data, India on the other hand has organized trips for foreign ambassadors to visit its pharmaceutical factories for increased transparency.
In the whole covid crisis, China has been viewed as the epicenter of the spread of disease while India is emerging as the 'Saviour' of the world community.
Until now vaccines produced by India have had a comparative advantage in various spheres. It is more affordable than Pfizer- BioNtech, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, Sputnik V and most other vaccines available. Also, its easy storage and transportation make it more viable for use in most tropical and subtropical areas.
The nation currently holds the position of the largest vaccine producer; producing 62% of the global vaccine. The country’s role in providing PPE kits, hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol and other health supplies coupled with its Vaccine Diplomacy will help it capture the international pharmaceutical market.
Vaccine Maitri Mission in Sri Lanka and Namibia
Image Credits: Yahoo/economyria.com
Throughout the covid crisis, India has been advocating and working for an equitable global vaccination drive and has also urged other countries to join in. These efforts highlight India's commitment to humanity and portray it as a leader in times of distress. According to eminent politician and diplomat, Shashi Tharoor, these initiatives might subtly increase India's chances of acquiring UNSC candidature.
Despite all the benefits of Vaccine Diplomacy, some experts and politicians domestically suggest that the decision of distributing vaccines to other countries is grounded more in geopolitics than in epidemiology. For instance, powers like the USA, Japan, China, Russia and India among others, in the race of establishing a foothold over the Asia Pacific region, have donated half of the world’s vaccines here though these areas had reported only 8 % of world’s covid cases since November. By contrast, Latin America, parts of Africa and central and eastern Europe which have witnessed burgeoning cases of Covid have received inadequate donations and surprisingly till 25th March, no vaccine doses had been donated to Panama, South Africa and Ukraine. This has proven to be a major fallacy of diplomacy.
Also, with manufacturers struggling to fulfill commitments and commercial obligations, questions are being raised over the rationale behind shipping out doses and the relatively slow pace of vaccination at home. Happymon Jacob, an international relations expert recently said, “ While India's vaccine diplomacy should be appreciated from a humanitarian point of view, there is no point in getting into a race with China given that less than 50 million Indians have been vaccinated so far”.
Despite all speculations and judgments, putting an end to the pandemic should remain the paramount concern. Although one can not be sure of the geopolitical gains that will accrue from this diplomacy but this will certainly become a tool to realize a ‘Post Pandemic’ world in actuality, where humanity finally wins over the deadly virus.
By Sonalika Rani & Ishi Chauhan
Sonalika is a first year student of Political Science from Hindu College. Politics has always fascinated her and she tries to find power dynamics in everything happening around her. She is eveready to pick a debate or deliberate on socio-political issues.
Ishi is also a first year student of Political Science. She is an avid reader, has a penchant for keeping herself abreast of the contemporary socio- political developments and is fond of thought provoking discussions on the same.