Daily Editorial Analysis for 2nd June 2021

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COVID diplomacy 2.0, a different order of tasks


  • In the past month, the focus for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Missions abroad has shifted.
  • While the focus in 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, was on coordinating exports of COVID­19 medicines, flights to repatriate Indians abroad (the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’) after the lockdown, and then exporting vaccines worldwide (‘Vaccine Maitri’), after the second wave, Covid Diplomacy 2.0 has a different order of tasks, both in the immediate and the long term.

The health crisis

  • The immediate imperative was to deal with oxygen and medicine shortages.
  • The Ministry of External Affairs has had to deal with internal health concerns while galvanizing help from abroad for others.
  • Remdesivir and favipiravir were brought from the United States and Russia. Indian missions are now requesting black fungus medication, and the previous ones have been dropped from the medical protocol.
  • Ministry of External Affairs has completed the task of bringing in supplies in a timely manner, and with success.

Handling vaccine shortages

  • The shortage of vaccines in the country has arisen from three factors:
  • The failure of the Government to plan and place procurement orders in time;
  • The failure of the two India-based companies to produce vaccine doses they had committed to, and
  • MEA’s focus on exporting, not importing, vaccines between January and April this year.
  • With the company’s manufacturing AstraZeneca and Sputnik-V stretched as far as future production is concerned, and Chinese vaccines a non-starter given bilateral tensions, it is clear that the government is looking to the U.S. to make up the shortfall.
  • There are various ways to do it:
  • Requesting the U.S. to share a substantial portion of its stockpile of AstraZeneca doses and to release more vaccine ingredients which are restricted for exports,
  • To buy more stock outright from the three U.S. manufacturers, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, and
  • To encourage production in India of these vaccines.
  • To negotiate is a difficult route. The U.S. government is holding up its AstraZeneca exports until its own United States Food and Drug Administration approves them; it has released a small amount (20 million doses) of vaccine ingredients and components.
  • Buying vaccines directly will need nimble negotiations as the U.S. companies seem set on getting both an indemnity waiver from India as well as Emergency Use Authorizations prior to supplying them.
  • The Government may also need to make shift from its publicly announced policy that States in India will need to negotiate purchases directly, as the U.S. manufacturers want centralised orders, with payments up-front.

Patents, diplomatic fallout

  • The promise of patent waivers, from India’s joint proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) won’t reap early benefits, despite support from world leaders such as the U.S., Russia and China.
  • As various countries are still holding out on the idea of freeing up intellectual property rights on vaccines for three years.
  • The third big challenge for Indian diplomacy is to manage the fallout of the vaccine collapse.
  • All vaccine exports were stopped as soon as cases in India began to soar, global agencies depending on India for vaccines.
  • Both India’s neighbours and partners in Africa as well as global agencies depending on India for vaccines have been left in the lurch by the Government’s failure to balance its vaccine budget.
  • The most egregious case is that of Bhutan and its vaccine drive which depended entirely on India’s promise of vaccines for its whole population.
  • In March, once India completed delivery of the first batch, of 550,000 Covishield doses, Bhutan completed the administration of the first dose to 93% of its population in a record 16 days.
  • India’s neighbours have now sought help from China and the U.S. to complete their vaccination drives.
  • Making amends and regaining trust for India’s vaccine and pharmacy exports in the future is going to be a challenge left to the MEA and its missions in several capitals.

Tracing virus pathways

  • Finally, as more waves of COVID 19 are being speculated, it is becoming increasingly clear that there must be a fuller, understanding of what caused COVID-19, India, as one of the worst pandemic-hit countries, must be at the forefront of demanding accountability.
  • World Health Organisation (WHO) studied “pathways of emergence” of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan, listed four possibilities: direct zoonotic transmission, an intermediate host, cold chain or transmission through food, or a laboratory incident.
  • While WHO has concluded that the fourth pathway is “extremely unlikely”, scientists and agencies around the world are now calling for more research and transparency from China, particularly over the activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

On regulations

  • India, must call for a more definitive answer and also raise its voice for a stronger convention to regulate any research that could lead, by accident or design, to something as diabolical as the current pandemic.

It is necessary to revamp the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, to institute an implementation body to assess treaty compliance, and build safer standards for the future.


With its seat at the UN Security Council as non-permanent member and its position on WHO’s Executive Board, India could seek to regain the footing it has lost over the past few months of COVID-19 mismanagement, by taking a lead role in ensuring the world is protected from the next such pandemic.

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