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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Diplomacy with Vaccine Characteristics

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on March 30, 2021 and can be accessed here.

Mumbai's nightlife is hit by a curfew, while Bangalore now requires all incoming travelers to show a negative COVID test. The new strain in Maharashtra has meant that cases are on the rise in India. But so is inoculation. States all over the country have begun rolling out the second stage of the vaccines - allowing everyone over the age of 45 to have access to Covishield and Covaxin.

The Indian government does some things better than others, and vaccinations are one of the success stories. Pre-Covid, India produced 60% of the world's vaccines. And while India's economy has nose-dived in the last year, one industry has profited from the government's emphasis on battling the COVID-19 virus. The Indian pharmaceutical industry is an active participant in ‘Vaccine Maitri,’ which guides India’s vaccine diplomacy. The Indian government's outreach, like its foreign policy, placed priority on the neighbourhood. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Afghanistan, have procured and received India’s vaccines and have already begun rolling them out.

Beyond South Asia, India began promising to dispatch six crore vaccines for 75 countries across the world. While a good proportion of these is donations, most of the vaccine diplomacy is commercial. This gained more impetus as Japan, Australia, and the United States of America agreed to back India’s manufacturing capabilities for global delivery of the vaccine at the Quad Summit in March. Further, the global initiative COVAX has offered to pay for 20% of any country’s population to access vaccines so that poorer countries can afford inoculation.

Analysts have been quick to pit India’s vaccine Maitiri with China’s vaccine diplomacy. But both have their advantages and disadvantages. For China, its vaccine diplomacy was a means to rewrite the narrative of the country responsible for the pandemic. Like India, China is donating and selling millions of Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to countries in South East Asia, East Europe, Latin America, and Africa. But problems of transparency have resulted in distrust in Chinese vaccines by people. There are also structural problems in China’s vaccine outreach.

A Foreign Affairs article points out that, "Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, few Chinese pharmaceutical companies had received World Health Organization prequalification to supply medical products to international organizations and donor funds. In 2019, China’s share in the value of UN-procured medical products was only 1.9 percent, compared with 21.9 percent for India. Chinese media lamented that of the 155 WHO-prequalified vaccines, only four were from China, compared with 44 from India."

But India’s vaccine diplomacy is taking a step back as cases within the country increase. Already, the Serum Institute has written to Brazil, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia to say that India will not be able to fulfill its commitments. This is even more problematic when countries depending on Indian vaccines exclusively have already administered the first shot to their people. Still, India refuses to provide more vaccines — not delivering means that India’s promises are empty rhetoric – a problem that already plagues India’s diplomatic outreach because it uses grand language but delivers very little. India has pointed out that Western countries’ vaccine nationalism is against global interests, but it risks falling into the same trap if it cannot meet its promises. This is not just a problem of “saving face” with China but an important reflection on India’s aspirations as a global power. And that depends on how India controls the rising cases within the country.

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