COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy: India’s opportunity to regain leadership in the neighborhood

India is able to take the mantle of leadership from the US and the EU through vaccine diplomacy.

COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy: India’s opportunity to regain leadership in the neighborhood

Vials of COVID-19 vaccine are seen before they are packed at SII on 21 Jan 2021. Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest maker of vaccines and has been contracted to manufacture a billion doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. Image: AP

In early 2020, India responded to COVID-19 with a strict lockdown, mask mandates, and a broad shutdown of schools and recreational centers. The disease burden- as the country with the second highest number of total COVID-19 cases- meant that India spent much of the year battling internal issues, but current lack of global leadership from the US and the EU means that India can no longer afford to focus inwards. Rather, the government must aim to export more vaccines and provide greater aid to struggling nations around the world.

Science diplomacy is defined, nebulously, as a series of interactions that occur in the intersection of the two fields of science and diplomacy. A subset of science diplomacy is called vaccine diplomacy, which involves the convergence of vaccine development, import and export for furthering a country’s diplomatic goals. India has no specific framework for this particular kind of diplomacy, but are not hesitating to use vaccine diplomacy to drum up international support and goodwill.

This vaccine diplomacy is necessary in order to bolster not just their international image, but also to provide a bulwark against Chinese influence in the neighborhood. It is therefore important to note that the government must go above and beyond to meet the needs of the moment.

Power Vacuum

India is able to take the mantle of leadership from the US and the EU through vaccine diplomacy. The US has spent the past year recommending unproven treatments and hoarding vaccine supplies instead of coordinating a global response. The EU was more involved in aiding international endeavors, but the needs of developing countries were clearly low on their list of priorities; delays in vaccine production have already led to the EU threatening to ban vaccine exports to the UK, nevermind the rest of the world.

More importantly, developed countries have already reserved the vaccine doses necessary. Canada has enough doses earmarked to vaccinate its population more than five times over, and don’t seem deeply invested in ensuring LMIC/LDCs receive them. The COVAX facility was set up to aid developing countries and claimed to have sourced 200 million doses, but has not delivered any of them yet. South Africa is paying more than double what the EU is paying for every dose of the Astrazeneca vaccine. Attempts to halt patents for the vaccines on humanitarian grounds- sponsored by South Africa and India- were blocked by the US, the EU, the UK, and Canada.

This is not an unfamiliar role for India; the push and pull of being the loudest voice for developing countries has played out in an international forum multiple times, often leading to a sense of diplomatic isolation. Now, however, India has the chance to not only be a standard-bearer, but also the knight in shining armor. Already, India remains one of the only countries exporting vaccines, to the point that more than ninety nations have approached India for vaccine supplies as opposed to the US, the EU or China. The export of vaccines- the release of more aid, not just in dispensing vaccines but developing the infrastructure for vaccine drives- must be increased in order to provide real, substantial aid to the countries that need it most.

India won’t be adversely affected by generosity

The Indian government is ensuring it maintains the necessary amount of the vaccine within its borders; it’s even ordered the Serum Institute of India not to export the vaccine for several months to ensure that all such exports are done through the Indian government and therefore reach other countries’ healthcare workers first.

It must be noted that releasing vaccines to other nations is not the same thing as opening one’s wallet- this is not, in other words, a zero-sum game. Vaccines are not money; they go bad if left unused. We are seeing vaccine doses being disposed in these conditions due to a lack of infrastructure in developed countries like the US, implying that India’s vaccination plans will be flawed as well, at least in the beginning. The answer to this is not to hoard vaccines but rather to ensure that as few of them go to waste as possible. If the problems lie in the beginning of the vaccine rollout, then we must ensure that we release the full arsenal only after the birthing pains have faded. The potential in each vial is too important to allow bureaucracy or selfishness to limit its use.

Fortifying India’s global image after China-India tensions

Chinese encroachment on Bhutan last June acts as a glimpse into their aims to reduce India’s primacy in the region. India’s own conflicts with China don’t seem to be slowing down, so it’s important that the government maintains, constructs, and nurtures relationships in the region. The vaccines currently shipped to the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh are therefore utterly necessary in maintaining these ties.

India must expand its release of COVID-19 vaccines as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to expand its influence, and it is in the position of a lifetime to do so: with a power vacuum for a situation in which India has experience, that can only further their diplomatic ties and entrench their position in the global community.

Pranathi Rao is a Biotechnology student at PES University and is currently researching vaccine diplomacy at Takshashila Institute.

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