Extraordinary response to global crises has often irreversibly redefined future courses for nations. Hitherto, overwhelming responses to most global crises have been by Western nations, led by the United States (US), primarily owing to the asymmetric nature of the global balance of power. However, for atleast twodecades now, these asymmetries are being readjusted due the rise of Asian countries like India and China and their carving out a larger space in the global power matrix. Resultantly, their responses to global crises have changed significantly over the past two decades, albeit still often reflected only regionally. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is one such moment, at which nations of the future will look back to assess countries by their responses to this global crisis. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to mark an indelible demarcation between two eras. The bygone, in which the western nations dominated responses in the crises-response binary apropos global crises; and the incoming one where Asian nations will.
Insofar as projections are possible at this stage, the COVID-19 outbreak has repositioned India in twin ways- first, by way of its effective shielding itself from the global outbreak of the virus, and second, in its ability to respond through medical and pharma diplomacy.Some of the outstanding features of India's new brand of diplomacy is that it includes speedy exports of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to over 55 countries, and comprises also the already undertaken or awaiting despatch of teams of Indian military doctors to countries like Nepal, the Maldives and Kuwait. Indian medical diplomacy has already received appreciation from various countries for India’s timely help. The US President Donald Trump lauded PM Modi as 'terrific' in allowing export of HCQs to US and assured that the timely help "will not be forgotten". Many other countries, including Brazil, Israel and Poland have thanked India for its timely help.
Starting the second week of April 2020, India began sending consignments of assistance of life-saving drugs to neighbouring countries to help them fight the coronavirus pandemic.Among countries in India's immediate and extended neighbourhood India sent drugs to Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius and some African countries.Some countries such as Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius are completely dependent on the Indian industry for supplies.
The Directorate General of Foreign Trade had placed a ban on export of HCQ on April 4. The government lifted the ban later and decided to supply HCQ and paracetamol. India's decision to lift the ban came on the heels of the US president Donald Trump cautioning that if India decided not to supply the medicines to the US, it could attract retaliations. This led to some speculations about the state of US-India relations. However, India's decision to lift the ban has been understood in the context of its own internal assessments of potential domestic demand and existing supplies. India produces more than 70 percent of the world’s HCQs.India has already sent 28 lakh HCQ and 13 lakh paracetamol tablets to 32 countries as assistance. In addition, drug supplies are being made to 42 countries on a commercial basis. For instance, while 530 kg of HCQ to Brazil has already been cleared by India, an additional 5 million tablets of HCQ has been offered to Brazil on a commercial basis.The Brazilain President, JairBolsonaro in his address to the nation on 9th April thanked Prime Minister NarendraModi and the people of India for the timely help extended to people of Brazil, with export of HCQ from India to Brazil. India has also kept a balance between large and small countries.For instance, when Dominican Republic approached the Indian Embassy in Cuba (concurrent accreditation) for medicines on March 25, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India“pulled out all stops” to send 2,00,000 tablets of HCQ.Hans Dannenberg Castellanos, the Ambassador of Dominican Republic to India, on 26th April, joined other countries in lauding the MEA for its assistance in not only evacuation of foreign nationals but also the timely delivery of medicines.
India’s decision to lift the ban on export of medicines carries two other broader contexts. First, at a time when the pandemic itself has shown no respect for borders, providing medical help across states of the world uplifts India’s soft power. Secondly, India’s timely help to the USshould be seen in the context of possible future reassurances from the US ‘regarding India’s export subsidies to its producers of steel products, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, etc., which was challenged by the US at the World Trade Organization (WTO)as being detrimental to American workers and manufacturers’. Among other potential benefits, India could also be approaching the US for withdrawal of some of the terms of contention between the two sides at the WTO. For instance, a lessening of the US’ pressure on the Non-Violations Complaints which the latter intends to bring into force apropos the TRIPS agreement that would permit a member to raise disputes against a fellow member’s policies regardless of a violation of the WTO agreement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved once again that India’s neighbourhood diplomacy is based on an agenda of friendship.It has proved to be an opportunity for India to also step up its neighbourhood diplomacy. On April 22, India sent 23 tonnes of essential medicines to Nepal to help it fight the coronavirus pandemic. This consignment included 8.25 lakh doses of essential medicines, 3.2 lakh doses of paracetamol and 2.5 lakh doses of HCQ. India's gesture was personally acknowledged with gratitude by the Prime Minister of Nepal K.P. Sharma Oli. In Bangladesh, India had already delivered 30,000 surgical masks and 15,000 head covers to Bangladesh by March 25. India followed this by gifting 1 lakh anti-malarial tablets of HCQ and 50,000 surgical gloves to Bangladesh, even as cases rose in that country.While in Maldives India supplied 317 cartons weighing over 5.5 tonnes of essential medicines, India has made medical supplies to Bhutan consisting of surgical masks, shoe covers, hand disinfectant/ hand sanitizers, digital thermometers, forehead sensor, disposable gloves, disposable surgical caps, surgical hoods, Gowns, fumigation systems, Glycerin ,Glutaraldehyde solution , coveralls, safety goggles and medicines.India has also sent drugs to, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka where a plane with 10 tonnes of medicine was dispatched.India has readied/sent rapid response teams to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.For instance, in Maldives, a 14-member rapid response team was sent to help set up laboratories and a 15 member team comprising health care personnel from the Army was sent to Kuwait.Moreover, the Indian Air Force fleet were activated in the beginning of April to transport essential equipment and medicines and at least two warships have been kept on standby for quick deployment in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood.These steps are on the back of a SAARC level initiative started by PM Modi to reach out to all regional nations and creating a SAARC fund of $10 million to be used by the member states.The SAARC emergency fund has pledged a sum of $21.8 million with contributions from seven member countries. All SAARC nations except Pakistan have scrambled to fulfil their pledge to the emergency fund, with India alreadyhaving deliveredrelief material worth $1.7 million to member states..
Apart from the medical diplomacy, India turned the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to reach out to countries far and wide, evacuate its citizens from other countries, facilitateevacuation of citizens of other countries from India and by providing food grains to countries in the midst of the pandemic. For instance, India has assured Kenya thatit would make non-commercial assistance comprising medical supplies apart from commercial supplies. The External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has reached out to a host of countries assuring them of medical supplies and other assistance, which is constantly updated on his Twitter handle. A quick glance at his Twitter handle reveals that he has already had a conversation withcounterparts in Argentina,Mali, Uganda, Comoros, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Seychelles, Jamaica, Marshall Islands, Jordon, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Estonia, Israel, Panama, Peru, Brazil, Russia, Czech Republic and the US.90 tonnes of medical equipment and safety gear were also supplied to Serbia. India’s wheat supply to Afghanistan, cooperation with Tehran in evacuating stranded Indians in Iran and a promise to Malaysia to supply anti-malarial drugs putting behindthe strains in the relationship that preceded the COVID-19 outbreak have been some of the standouts in India’s diplomacy during the epidemic.India made effective use of the Chabahar port in delivering wheat and medical supplies to Afghanistan.The Embassy of India in Kabul said the following in this regard through a post on social media:
251 containers carrying the first consignment of 5,022 MT of wheat out of a total gift of 75,000 MT from India to Afghanistan set sail from the Kandla Port to the Chabahar Port today [on Sunday]. The remaining consignments will follow in the weeks ahead. India is gifting 5,00,000 tablets of HydroxyChloroquine to Afghanistan for health professionals and COVID-19 positive cases.
Beyond what has met the eye, the Indian embassies worldwide have undertakenvigorous diplomatic efforts to ensure the return of the distressed nationalsandsafety in their present locations.This was done by issuing advisories and putting in place emergency helplines and online forms for stranded Indian citizens to intimate the embassies to assure Indian nationals of their safety. In particular, these initiatives were led by Indian embassies in Canada, Greece, Finland and Estonia, Israel, Japan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and North Macedonia, Russia, Cuba, Brazil, Iran and Switzerland.The Indian embassy in Brasilia roped in local Indian restaurants and hotelsto provide low cost accommodation andIndian food for stranded Indians due to travel restrictions in three Brazilian cities, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Sau Paulo.The Indian embassy in Brazil is also offering Yoga classes since April 18 through online live classes.Efforts like these have proven more challenging in countries with sizeable Indian population. That includes most Gulf countries. For instance in Oman, the embassy in Muscat has established round-the-clock helpline numbers and a network involving social workers and hypermarket chains to provide food to needy Indian nationals all over the country. It has already reached out to more than 2,000 Indian nationals. In a much lauded initiative, the Indian Embassy in the UAE provided alternative places for COVID-19 positive cases and took care of expats who did not have access to food and medicines.
The COVID-19 crisis has also catapulted India’s evacuation capabilities at the helm. After facilitating a massive evacuation of 28,000 people from 43 countries just before the global halt, the Indian government is also planning a major evacuation plan involving the Navy, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Air India to bring back Indians stranded in West Asia after travel restrictions due to COVID-19 were enforced.In one of the largest return evacuations of foreign citizens, India has facilitated an Air India special flight carrying 314 Israelis back to their country.These efforts are on the back of a massive effort globally by Indian missions abroad together with the MEA which have collectively repatriated more than 40,000 Indian nationals.These include 4834 Japanese nationals, 3197 German nationals, 2833 Malaysian nationals, 1581 Israeli nationals, 1810 French citizens, 3486 US citizens, 1384 Canadian citizens, 4448 UK nationals, 1600 Canadians, 2687 Afghan nationals and 1500 Russian nationals.Specifically two missions, "Vande Bharat Mission" and "Samudra Setu" have been planned to repatriate Indian nationals from various countries. The "Vande Bharat Mission" is being held as the largest such operation carried out by India since the 1990 Kuwait airlift and is spread across 12 countries, with 64 flights operating from May 07-13 and evacuating a total of 14, 800 Indian nationals. The "Samudra Setu" is a phased operation launched by the Indian Navy to bring back around 1000 stranded Indians from Maldives in its first phase. Two ships, INS Jalashwa and INS Magar have been dispatched and are expected to reach Malé May 08 and 10 respectively. The Indian Navy has also kept 12 additional ships on standby for mass evacuation of Indian from the Gulf region.
At the global level, the Indian Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister have engaged with their counterparts in over 50 countries over telephone. India has also regularly shared the steps taken to counter the pandemic with the Indo-Pacific countries through a weekly telephonic call.India’s engagement with a host of Indo-Pacific countries on a weekly basis is centred around sharing of best practices like vaccine development, cooperation on stranded citizens and on resurrecting the global economy.The Serum Institute of India (SII) is one of the seven global institutions manufacturing the vaccine in partnership with Oxford University. The government has also announced that India is working with foreign labs to develop Remdesivir, the new COVID-19 hope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided India with the spectrum to lead both regionally and globally. As the world moves towards new global agendas, India could provide leadership in the areas of medical assistance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.India’s call for a reform of the WHO in the most recent G20 meeting has found support from other countries.And, its regional leadership has been appreciated globally. The COVID-19 diplomacy establishes India as a reliable and responsible global power. Besides testing its mettle, the way India will continue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will perhaps irreversibly change its course as a more dependable nation regionally, and a more capable nation globally.
*Dr. Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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