As the second wave rages on in India, the hope that the vaccines represented in the first wave seem to be dying down, despite their efficacy in preventing infection and severe disease. Once the vaccines were developed (the fastest developed and approved vaccines in history), they have become an essential geopolitical tool in international relations. It is pertinent to remember that the diplomacy and unity shown in the Vaccine Maitri project, although morally unquestionable, was undoubtedly informed by politics.
But first, what is Vaccine Maitri and what does it have to do with India? In simple terms, Vaccine, Maitri was a humanitarian initiative India undertook to provide vaccines to countries worldwide. The vaccines began distribution on 20th January 2021, and as of 9th April, 2021 have provided 64.5 million doses to 85 countries ( “Ministry of External Affairs – Government of India”. Ministry of External Affairs – Government of India). The first countries to receive grants by India for vaccines were Bhutan and Maldives, beginning export only four days after India started its vaccination program. This was soon followed by shipments to Seychelles, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Vaccine Maitri program works in tandem with the COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative.
The two vaccines approved and exported by India as part of the Vaccine Maitri program are Covishield (developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca) and Covaxin (BBV152 developed by Bharath Biotech). Several million doses of Covishield were provided to India via the COVAX program, and India has exported several million doses of Covaxin.
However, in March 2021, India froze the export of the Covishield vaccine due to its current Covid crisis and shortage of doses.
The World and the Vaccine
When considering the shipment of vaccines, India must have a clear distinction between donation and export. Both have different outcomes in terms of economic and political capital. As a pharma manufacturing powerhouse, accounting for 62% of all vaccine manufacturing globally, India was quick off the mark in the global distribution of vaccines. In the first wave, India did not just distribute vaccines but was a primary contributor of medicines like antibiotics and steroids required to fight the virus. India even distributed approx. One hundred million hydroxychloroquine tablets when it was suspected that it would treat the disease.
India is no stranger to humanitarian aid, extending medical, financial, and other assistance to Sri Lanka during the 2004 tsunami. India has also extended several donations to Myanmar and Bangladesh during several crises, so it was not a surprise that India was one of the leaders in the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Our top partners in vaccine distribution were a mix of our immediate neighbours, our allies and our trading partners. The top recipients of India-manufactured vaccines were Bangladesh, Morocco, UK, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Nepal. It is pertinent to note that Bangladesh is the top recipient of Indian-manufactured vaccines with 103 lakh doses, distributed whether exported or donated.
The Politics of Aid
Here we can see the political mechanics of extending aid to our immediate neighbours, especially as India has border security issues with China and Pakistan. Contrast that with the U.S, which has exported only 3 million doses of the vaccine (around 1% of total vaccines manufactured in the U.S.) and India, which have exported more than 69 million doses (approximately 35% of total vaccines manufactured). Although we cannot draw correlations, it is curious to note that countries with fewer border security issues favour trading partners. In contrast, countries with border security issues and encroachment issues tend to extend aid more readily to their immediate neighbours.
India’s donations to the rest of the world, particularly during the first wave of the pandemic, were instrumental in the fight against COVID. The distribution of drugs, equipment, and intelligence and research into the treatment and the eventual vaccine were vital to the world. India had extended aid to several smaller countries as well, particularly island nations and minor economics. We can also see the strengthening of our ties with our trading partners, mainly the UK and Saudi Arabia, and we can infer a lot from the absence of countries like Pakistan and China.
Therefore we can see political machinations even in aid distribution, but where does it get us? Does picking and choosing our partners to limit our possible growth as a global power?
No. there was a significant issue made out that India, during the second wave, for the first time in several decades, is now dependent on humanitarian aid. While this is undoubtedly a tragedy, we must also understand the steps taken to receive this aid. It would be easy to say that the aid only comes as India needs now, but that wouldn’t be the case. In truth, India receives assistance so readily since it has extended aid so many times. The soft power obtained by India with its partners is now being flexed as countries are being compelled to pay it forward, if not by governments then by their population. The same populations we had taken pains to get treated and vaccinated. We can see the backlash of trying to resist this power when the U.S. restricted the export of raw materials required to manufacture vaccines, citing ‘America First.’ This damaged America’s reputation in the International Arena so much that they had to roll back the decision and pivot to send aid to India. If the U.S. had seen it fit to abandon India, particularly during the oxygen crisis, it would’ve made it easy for India to rely on Russia and weaken the U.S.’s presence in Asia. The shipment of oxygen tanks and oxygen concentrators from Europe and other countries shows the need for these countries to maintain a particular back and forth with India.
Now we look to the other vaccination giant this is China. China’s participation in the COVAX program is also an incredibly political move. This has repaired China’s image after the backlash from the beginning of the virus and even from the 2019 reports of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province. Now China has an excellent standing, not only in Asia but also in Africa and Latin America. This allows them to further their standing in the global community and hence negate any ‘bad press’ that would weaken a smaller country.
Since India’s stalling of vaccine export and the U.S.’s apparent indifference, several smaller countries have turned to China to get them out of the pandemic and recover. The stifling of the Vaccine Maitri project has made several countries turn to China as their only option. This gives China the same political leverage India had, namely the assurance that if there were to be a crisis on Chinese soil, there would be an outpouring of support. China’s standing will get larger if China’s Sinovac Ltd. developed vaccine is approved, China could have in-house vaccines shipped to its partners.
This will not come without a fight; however, as India’s second wave dies down and vaccine exports continue and the U.S. pledging to take a more active role in the global distribution of the vaccines, China will not be a vaccine superpower just yet. To combat global ‘bad press’ towards the U.S., the Biden administration expressed support to waive the patents on the COVID-19 vaccines and hence allow for local manufacture of the vaccine. The E.U. has stepped up the vaccine export as they have emerged out of the pandemic.
To conclude, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to India, but the distribution of our vaccines can be understood and studied as a classic example of the flexing of soft power. The power we get from weapon testing and a nuclear arsenal are always limited. The power obtained by the extension of aid, governed is always essential to the state’s survival.
“Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want, and this can be done by coercion, payment or attraction.”
(Abhilash Thangaraj is an intern at the Center of Policy Research and Governance)