New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Wednesday said it was “not fair” to blame the Modi government for the country’s struggles with the second Covid-19 wave.
“I don’t think that it is fair (to blame the government) either in terms of diagnosing the problem really and in assessing how the government responded to it,” he said at an event organised by India Inc. in London.
Jaishankar is in London to attend the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting and will also take part in some bilateral meetings there.
Speaking at the event, Jaishankar said that about two to three months ago, India was registering less than 10,000 positive Covid cases a day and since then, it has gone up by 38 times, showing “how virulent the virus is.”
“You’ve got to really understand the intensity and the enormity… The first wave also caught us unprepared,” he said. “After all, nobody had foreseen a pandemic of this magnitude and intensity. But we scrambled in the first wave as a country, as a society, as a people to get our masks, our ventilators, our PPEs, our testing kits, that was the focus of the effort. It came at a great cost. The lockdown was very painful and I still think it was an effective decision at that point of time.”
He said as 2020 came to an end, numbers were only rising in Maharashtra and Kerala. He added that as Covid-19 numbers dipped, there was a “certain amount of public confidence because you wanted to revive the economy”.
“Today it is very easy to say you should have seen that coming and kept up your guard all the time. But what was the mood of the country at the beginning of the year, which was to get the economy going, get normalcy back,” Jaishankar said. “What happened though as numbers went down, the attempt to instil confidence created the kind of societal complacency that I think all of us are part of.”
‘A crowd is a crowd, is a crowd’
Jaishankar also defended the mass gatherings that took place in India — the election rallies and the Kumbh Mela — saying that only these cannot be seen as reasons for the spread. According to him, crowds that had gathered around protest sites are also to be blamed.
“In a democratic country, you can’t not have elections … We are a deeply democratic country, we are a deeply political country,” he said. “Suppose the government had said at that time that let’s not do the election, imagine what would be the reaction? Elections are sacrosanct and then the issue that was raised was the crowd issue.”
“There were crowds and crowds. It can’t be that religious crowds are a problem but protest crowds are fine,” he added. “At the end of the day, a crowd is a crowd, is a crowd.”
‘Gave vaccine to neighbourhood for fear of pandemic’
Reiterating his defence on India’s vaccine diplomacy or ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, Jaishankar said India’s vaccine production situation was “somewhat different” from many other countries, especially that of the US and those in Europe.
He said it is different because India made the vaccine in collaboration with the Oxford group. The AstraZeneca vaccine, Covishield, thus is a British-designed product and it was made in India because the owner of the vaccine saw the country as an efficient hub for production, the foreign minister said.
“So along with the ability to make in India along with the approvals, came an obligation to supply it to a large part of the world,” he added. “It is not that the vaccine production started in India because it was invented by an Indian, owned by an Indian and used by an Indian. It was a truly international collaboration.”
And thus, he said, India had to export those vaccines under the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative. He said there were other commitments also internationally that India had to take care of.
He also said India had to gift vaccines to the neighbourhood as a goodwill gesture.
“Our immediate concern was also our immediate neighbours. You wanted their doctors and health-workers to do well because you didn’t want a pandemic right across your doorstep,” he said. “So I think an effort was made to strike that balance and we kept that balance as far as we could.”
“As demand in India mounted, we levelled with all the other countries and every foreign minister understood that,” he added.
Jaishankar also denied that there is any constraint on India producing vaccines.
“It was not that our vaccine production was constrained and we knew it or it was predictable. We had a certain sense from industry, from the two vaccine producers currently (Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech) as well as those who are coming in very shortly that there will be a certain scaling up which would happen,” he said. “But then we found, and this started to become visible in February and March, that the raw material inflow to do the predictable expansion in capacity was not coming.”
“That (raw materials) wasn’t coming because of pull factors particularly towards the United States,” he added.
So, from March onwards, he said, the Ministry of External Affairs started approaching other countries to keep the raw material inflows intact.
‘Health sector underinvested for decades’
On the collapsing health infrastructure in the country, Jaishankar said the government system has to be ramped up.
“Health is a basic right of people but having said that, you have what you have at this point of time, which is an underinvested health sector over many many decades,” he said.
Medical oxygen demand, Jaishankar said, has gone up from 1,000 metric tonnes consumption earlier to 7,500-8,000 metric tonnes.
He said the government is taking all steps necessary to meet the demand for oxygen, which has shot up across the country as India undergoes the second wave.
On aid being given to India by various countries, Jaishankar said the world has helped a lot. On China extending support, Jaishankar said that during his phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi recently, both sides discussed how the private sectors can help each other in this crisis.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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