Since the beginning of the pandemic, vaccines were the best shot at combating the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rise in the number of cases around the world, the desperation to develop a vaccine rose substantially. International collaborations among scientists to develop an effective vaccine became unavoidable - frail understanding between the nations, however, proved to be a major hurdle in reaching the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
What is Vaccine Nationalism?
The 'my nation first' ideology relating to the unhealthy distribution of vaccines has birthed the concept of Vaccine Nationalism. Developed countries have entered into multi-billion-dollar agreements with various pharmaceuticals for assured supplies of vaccines to their citizens. These agreements mean that if any of the big-wig pharmaceuticals are successful in developing a vaccine, they would have to supply the number of vaccines mentioned in the agreement to the particular country, first.
The developed countries like the US, UK, and the European Union have spent billions of dollars on deals with vaccine developers such as Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca; this was even before the efficacy of the vaccines was ascertained. While it is sensible for the governments to prioritise the health of their citizens’ health, a multi-nation drive to facilitate vaccination for people around the globe would have been in every country’s self-interest.
What is Vaccine Maitri?
Vaccination Nationalism has created room for countries like – India, China, and maybe Russia to develop, produce and deliver vaccines in the developing part of the world. This opportunity was a door to Alex's Wonderland as it could potentially bolster their influence and strengthen their ties with other nations. Grabbing the opportunity, India - pharmacy of the world - initiated Vaccine Maitri.
Vaccine Maitri, translates to vaccine friendship, is an initiative by the Indian government towards other countries of the world in helping everyone combat COVID-19 with the ‘Made in India’ vaccines. Under its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, Bhutan and Maldives became the first countries to receive the vaccine consignments. Following these, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Brazil, Kuwait, Bahrain, among others, have also got packages of – Covishield, Covaxin, and AstraZeneca - the vaccines.
On the 75th anniversary of the UN in September 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India’s vaccine production capacity will help humanity in combating the coronavirus.
How is Vaccine Nationalism destroying the world?
Rajeesh Kumar, an associate fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, recently wrote an article on the institute’s website, mentioning that many of the developed countries are believed to be stockpiling vaccines that are disproportionate with their COVID-19 cases as well as their population. He further elaborates with an example on how Australia, Canada, and Japan have less than one per cent of the world's coronavirus cases, yet, they have pre-ordered more doses of vaccines than all of Latin America and the Caribbean — a region with more than 17 per cent of global coronavirus cases.
India’s capability to produce vaccines
India produces almost 60 per cent of vaccines in the world. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, however, India stumbled a bit but soon the pharmacy of the world pulled up its socks and ramped up the production of essential medicines like paracetamol, hydroxychloroquine, etc. Not only did India prove its efficiency in the production of medicines, but it also emerged as an exporter of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits, ventilators, and masks.
According to IBEF – India Brand Equity Foundation, India’s contribution to the pharmaceutical and biotech workforce is the second largest in the world. The country's domestic pharmaceutical market turnover reached Rs 1.4 lakh crore (US$ 20.03 billion) in 2019, up 9.8% y-o-y from Rs 1.29 lakh crore (US$ 18.12 billion) in 2018. The website further mentions, that ‘Indian drugs are exported to more than 200 countries in the world, with the US being the key market.’
How is Vaccine Maitri helping India and strengthening allies?
While most organisations and countries have applauded Modi-government’s Vaccine Maitri, it is not purely out of goodwill that India is ‘oh so graciously’ distributing vaccines to the world.
Experts have been drawing a tangent between the country’s Vaccine Maitri and other policies like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World is One Family), Neighbourhood First, and South-South Cooperation. Though, the initiative is strategically increasing country’s hold over the international Pharma sector, it is understood that India is also aiming to gain soft power over various beneficiaries. Does soft power, however, gain the much-anticipated results?
Dr Vijay Khare, Director, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at Savitribai Phule Pune University, explains, “In the human history soft diplomacy always plays an important role. Like how countries like the UK offered educational fellowships, with that kind of soft diplomacy they developed a strategic partnership with different countries. In the contemporary world, this (vaccine maitri) would be once of opportunity to develop strategic partnership with neighbouring countries.”
Mentioning soft diplomacy’s limitations, Dr Khare adds, “At the same time, one must not expect that (from the beneficiaries). This is soft diplomacy… and (it) can always change as per the time. So to some extent it gets emotional support from the local population (for the respective country), but when it comes to building better relationships you need hard diplomacy.”
He further adds, “In a contemporary global politics, where China is assertive, (and) Russia is facing internal turbulence, India can play an important role through this soft diplomacy… Ultimately what is important for each individual nation is its national interest. So in that way if (one) considers that through this Vaccine Maitri, (one) will get all the support that will not happen. It would be (certainly) help to strengthen strategic partnership, but (one must) always prepare with hard diplomacy. As long COVID 19 is there, each one will talk, each one will appreciate, but after COVID-19 or when the situation normalise people will forget, and then they will bounce back to their own strategic issues.”
In the race to win!
Even though India is not a player in vaccine politics, it is certainly leading the vaccine diplomacy drive. Indian government’s aim to win over conflicts through soft diplomacy may not yield the kind of result on hoped for, the country however has put itself on the map among more powerful countries.