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Diplomatic Monologues : Pandemic Diplomacy

Diplomatic Monologues : Pandemic Diplomacy

Amit Das gupta


Diplomatic Monologue
Amit Dasgupta


I read somewhere that 2020 was a really good, but variable year, with wines of outstanding potential for many Bordeaux estates. They might be the only ones celebrating the year gone by!

Globally, 2020 was an unmitigated disaster that many would hope to erase from memory. It was certainly a year of acute suffering which, at the time of writing, resulted in excess of two million reported deaths as a  consequence of the pandemic.

Chinese authorities first reported a cluster of cases around the end of December 2019. It was suspected then that the Beijing had knowledge and information about the outbreak, as early as October itself but suppressed sharing the information with WHO or the global community. In mid-January 2020, a COVID 19 victim died in Thailand. The virus was spreading. The rapidity with which it spread across the globe is well-known. Consequently, when President Trump referred to it as ‘the China virus’, he echoed global sentiments.

Across the globe, families lost loved ones. Hospitals ran out of beds and life-saving drugs. Health services were grossly inadequate. Limited knowledge of the virus triggered fear and a sense of acute helplessness. No country was spared.

What started as a health sector challenges quickly infected multiple verticals, the most critical of which was the economic. Health protocols, especially social distancing and travel restrictions, forced several shops and establishments to shut down, others drastically downsized simply to stay afloat.

Those in the informal sector were among the worst hit and lost their livelihood overnight. It was reported that many were driven to suicides. Depression, anxiety and mental health issues became commonplace. Economic activity came to a standstill globally. A grave sense of uncertainty enveloped the world like a shroud.

Pharmacy of the World

It is to the credit of India that she saw the pandemic not only as a domestic challenge but also as an extraordinary foreign policy opportunity. There is, of course, a long history to this. South-South cooperation that was first articulated during Nehru’s time has remained as an integral, indeed defining, part of India’s engagement with the world.

Take the example of the role India and Indian pharmaceutical companies played in Africa, for instance, to combat HIV-AIDS. In 2001, it is estimated that Africa had around 23 million HIV positive persons.

Western drug manufacturing companies were offering drugs at $10,000 per patient per annum, which was out of reach for most Africans. Cipla produced a generic version at $400 in comparison. It is documented and internationally acknowledged that this strengthened the fight against HIV-AIDS in Africa. By 2015, Indian drug exports to Africa had reached $4 billion with promise of sustained growth as Africans gravitated towards Indian generic drugs.

In response to the global challenge of the pandemic, India stepped up its production capacity and exported vital medicines, life-saving drugs, PPE kits and ventilators to several countries. At the height of the pandemic last year, in response to demand, India supplied hydroxychloroquine to over 55 countries, including the US and Europe.

Anticipating a critical supply-demand mismatch once the vaccines are available, India embarked on its own vaccine production through its research facilities and would administer these pan-India after obtaining required approvals from regulatory authorities.

This was a smart move in view ofthe disturbing development whereby rich countries started hoarding vaccines depriving the poorer and developing nations of the same. Indeed, by July of 2020, there were reports of how developed countries had set in motion a system to hoard life-saving and critical drugs.

India’s breakthrough in vaccine manufacture would not only allow her to meet massive domestic demand but also reach out to those who are deprived of the vaccine. And, consequently, help combat the global spread and survival of the virus.

This initiative to position itself as ‘the pharmacy of the world’ is a significant foreign policy initiative. It is strategic thinking and soft power at its best. To my mind, the clever takeaway is that while China gave the world the virus, India participated with the global community in solving the problem.

Economic Recovery

The pandemic has been a global tragedy. It is also not likely to go away any time soon and, by all accounts, 2021is also likely to be a difficult year. Mutations and different strains of the virus coupled with challenges regarding the timely delivery of the vaccines will add to prevailing uncertainty. The parallel challenge is to revive the economy.

There are credible fears that countries would become insular and inward-looking. With a massive loss in jobs and the halting of economic activity, such policies are likely to be welcomed by domestic audiences because of the promise of better days ahead. A deeper embrace of nationalism on the grounds of self-reliance is a genuine possibility across the globe.

There would also be a debate on pro-growth and pro-poor policies with the argument that one cannot sit alongside the other. Linked to this would be the debate between nationalism and globalization.

Nationalism and globalization don’t need to be on opposite ends of the spectrum and consequently, adversarial. The achievements of India’s pharma sector are a strong demonstration that self-reliance has positive and lucrative dividends and needs to be strengthened. However, the temptation to deepen either nationalism or globalization to the exclusion of the other has grave pitfalls.

At a time of economic inactivity, the push needs to be towards trade and investment liberalization to spur growth. India needs to be mindful of balancing globalization with self-reliance failing which its own economic engine would continue to stutter.

China would continue on the path of economic resilience and the gains that India has made through image building would again be frittered away. There is, thus, a genuine opportunity for India to emulate the transformative opening it embarked on in the 1990s.

If the Indian economy is able to achieve this, the second decade of the 21st century could go down in history as India’s decade.

(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)
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One Comment

  • Sane advice to all nations-balancing globalization with self-reliance

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