Covid vaccine diplomacy leads to “undiplomatic” pushback

On, 24th of January 2021, India donated millions of doses of the British-developed AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines being manufactured in the country to neighboring South Asian nations in an unusual diplomatic initiative.

The “vaccine diplomacy” seeks to lift the global profile of New Delhi and fight back toward China, which in South Asia has increased its reach, analysts claim.

According to Sreeram Chaulia, Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs, India wants to showcase itself as a world leader and this move is about showing power and creating an image.

As the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, India is set to be at the forefront of providing low- and middle-income countries with affordable vaccines against COVID-19.

The Serum Institute of India, an Indian corporation, has entered AstraZeneca to produce the vaccine.

Vaccine supplies have recently arrived in Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Mauritius, and Seychelles, only days after the launch of India’s own national inoculation program.

After it gains clearance in those countries, the vaccine will be sent to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan, which has accepted the AstraZeneca vaccine is clearly missing from the recipient list.

As a response to a press briefing, Anurag Shrivastava, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson, said that he is not aware of any request for vaccines from Pakistan’s end.

Amidst all the criticism about vaccine inequality, India has now managed to gain praise from the neighboring countries and is now being called a “vaccine powerhouse”.

Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, has emphasized prioritizing South Asian countries, i.e. its neighboring countries, for the distribution of the vaccines.

Although China has also been giving its locally developed vaccines to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey and promising many others to help overcome the pandemic, South Asian countries are relying on India for supplying the AstraZeneca vaccine for their steady recovery.

Sreeram Chaulia further added  that India would like to point out that in this area, unlike some others where China typically surpasses India in terms of military and economic strength, India genuinely has a competitive edge and advantage over China in this sector, in pharmaceutical products, in affordable health care.

This is going to be a subtle reminder that you really can rely on us, that we have not produced the problem, but we can be part of the solution.

But this diplomacy became undiplomatic when the Chinese Communist Party’s daily newspaper Global Times raised concerns about the ability of India to fulfill the global demand for vaccinations after the fire at the Pune facility of the Serum Institute of India (SII), which took five lives and caused a loss of Rs 1,000 crore, even though the company clarified that the fire did not affect the development or storage of the Covid-19 vaccine, Covishield.

Quoting a BBC story, Global Times said that All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), a patient advocacy organization, said that SII had rushed forward with the manufacture of Covishield without performing a “bridging study” for the vaccine, despite SII promising it will do so.

Global Times also said that Indians living in China “embraced” Chinese vaccines and also cited an expert stating that India’s vaccines were supplied mostly to South Asian countries, also as assistance, and that many countries had “quality” reservations regarding India’s vaccines.

Global Times also quoted some tweets where the netizens are questioning the reliability of Indian media’s coverage of the SII fire incident and said that they (the media houses) only showed what the company said.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Brazil, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, however, have not only become aid receivers but have also stepped into contractual vaccine distribution arrangements.

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