Barely out of an embarrassingly long quarantine, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, flew to the US to convince President Joe Biden’s administration to direct some of the 80 million vaccines to India, to fight the surging coronavirus, and allow it to meet its global commitments.
India, which was seen as the pharmacy of the world, had to stop promised supplies to various countries after it was devastated by a murderous second surge.
Disappointingly, the foreign minister got no firm commitment about the supplies of unused AstraZeneca vaccines. The US clubbed India with other Asian neighbours and was given barely a day’s worth of supplies.
India desperately needs the unused AstraZeneca vaccines from the US, to quickly give jabs to its vulnerable population.
Up until now, India has vaccinated only 3% of its 1.4 billion population, which is a far cry from all its targets.
What is visible is that the lackadaisical response of the Indian government to roll out its programme. This physically compromised its large population that came under the arc of the coronavirus surge when it killed close to a million people, and hurt millions of those living other countries that were dependent on Indian-made vaccines.
These lives would have been saved if the government had not lost its way due to its confusing vaccine strategy mounted on an exclusionary digital registration platform called Cowin.
The result of the confusion, besides untrammelled spread of disease and death, was also social and geographical exclusion. People who do not understand English and who live in the country’s villages were summarily excluded. The countryside, which has been ravaged by the virus due to absence of public health infrastructure, would have been saved if they were vaccinated in good time between January and March last year. Also, this timely act would have helped India to send the vaccines from May this year – as committed to COVAX – onwards to almost 80 nations.
Many of the countries that were banking on the Serum Institute, Johnson &Johnson, and NOVAVAX are negotiating with Russia for its Sputnik vaccine, and now with China for its WHO-endorsed vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac. Ten million vaccines from China will enter the COVAX stream to take care of the desperation of many countries. One more vaccine candidate from China may get WHO approval as India struggles to get its sole candidate, Covaxin, cleared by the world body.
The worry for Indians who got a Covaxin jab is that they would not get the privileges in many countries that they normally bestow on those that have the WHO certification. They may have to get vaccinated again. This gap in the Covaxin emergency clearance by the country is causing nightmares for those who got the jab assuming that it would be treated as any vaccination when travelling abroad for work or studies.
Bharat Biotech, its manufacturer, says it has submitted 90% of the required documents to WHO for Covaxin clearance. There is no clarity, though, on what more is required by WHO to help Covaxin cross the finishing line.
The Covaxin troubles are not the only ones that are gnawing at the Indian government It is desperately trying to recover lost ground but finds itself on a slippery slope. Its subpar handling of the pandemic and the manner in which it tried to cover-up the dead has put India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the unedifying company of anti-scientific populists like Jair Bolsanaro, Viktor Orban and Donald Trump. All the populist leaders have been accused of aggravating the crisis.
Modi announced in January and February last year how India had managed to defeat the virus and it was in a position to help other countries in the monumental task.
His detractors claim that his hubris and refusal to take cognisance of the advice of the scientists resulted in this great Indian tragedy, which is compared to the deaths and destruction in this country at the time India was partitioned into two countries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had built a reputation for displaying a sure hand when it came to handling disasters, but the coronavirus found him fumbling.
The magazine, The Economist, also accused him of missing in action when the country needed him most. Worse, his government failed to gauge the paucity of vaccines – despite being the prime vaccine manufacturer.
Bizarrely, the main vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India (SII)’s, Adar Poonawallah, fearing for his life, left India and sought refuge in London. Though he promises to return, he left at a time when the vaccine supplies needed a firm commitment from its makers.
Bizarrely, the central government gave freedom to the states to buy their own vaccines – a move that has faced excessive criticism from the courts and resistance elsewhere. Vaccine makers want to deal with the national government and that is going to force Modi and his government to change its policies.
Modi and his government’s fumbling is diminishing India’s profile and making it inadequate as a regional counterpoint to China. What does that mean for India’s future?
* Sanjay Kapoor is the editor of Hardnews Magazine.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.