File photo of US President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. | Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg
File photo of US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. | Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg
Text Size:

Depending on the universe you live in, you will either be furious at the manner in which several influential newspapers worldwide have reported India’s gruesome Covid pandemic over the last several days, or congratulate them for telling the brutal truth.

There is enough reporting about the gross mishandling of the pandemic at home, but for some reason, it’s the foreign press that gets the Narendra Modi government’s goat. The Australian’s bald criticism (“arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions in India, with its crowd-loving PM basking while citizens suffocate”) so upset India’s high commission in Australia that it sent an angry rejoinder to the editor and urged them to publish it.

Foreign criticism elsewhere — the Australian Financial Review cartoon of Prime Minister Modi riding a collapsed elephant with two oxygen cylinders next to it, the UK Guardian blaming Modi for its inadequate response to the “out of control” pandemic, The Economist’s accusations of government “distraction and complacency” for allowing the surge to become a redoubled disaster, and The New York Times reporting that India is under-counting its dead – has not produced similar public outrage, although officials privately describe the reporting as “vulture journalism”.

So, as the virus killed thousands of people across India – spurring Bangladesh to shut its borders, Assam to request Bhutan next door to keep oxygen on standby, Singapore to send cryogenic oxygen tankers, the UK to promise to send oxygen concentrators and ventilators, Saudi Arabia to send 80 metric tonnes of oxygen tanks via ship, Russia to send oxygen equipment as well as anti-viral drugs like Favipiravir, and persuading even arch-rivals China and Pakistan to offer help – two things happened.


Also read: India-US ties not built on morals, but necessity. Biden’s Covid help delay won’t matter


World must support India

First, India went back on its own stated policy of not accepting foreign aid, although there is a subtle difference this time around with the world offering material help. Not long ago, in 2018, the Modi government had refused to let Kerala’s Left Front government led by Pinarayi Vijayan to accept “Rs 700-crore offered” by the UAE (the Gulf nation, however, denied making that specific promise) to help mitigate the damage caused by floods that had wracked the state.

Remember that India had accepted foreign aid for the Uttarkashi earthquake in 1991, the Latur earthquake in 1993, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the Bengal cyclone in 2002, and the Bihar floods in July 2004.

But when the tsunami struck in December 2004, the Manmohan Singh government turned down foreign aid – it didn’t want to be seen as a beggar going to the world with a begging bowl. Only a year before, BJP’s Jaswant Singh had, in 2003, created a new doctrine of foreign aid, stemming from irritation about conditions imposed by tiny countries like Denmark that cancelled its paltry $28 million commitment when India went nuclear in 1998. All those giving aid below $25 million, said Jaswant Singh in 2003, could donate it to NGOs; the Indian government would have none of it.

Cut to the present. With distressing scenes of hundreds dying of Covid-19 being beamed into homes across the world, something had to be done. So, on 23 April, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar held a meeting with India’s ambassadors to the US, the European Union and Germany as well as several other laboratories and institutes manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine and tweeted, “The world must support India, as India helps the world.”

Significantly, India’s ambassador to Russia, D.B. Venkatesh Varma, was not present at the meeting, even though the representative of Dr. Reddy’s Lab, which will start importing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine into India from 1 May from the Russian RDIF company, was present.


Also read: India can leverage economic partnership with US if it addresses domestic bottlenecks


A change in US stance

The second question relates to the US turnaround on giving aid to India in the last three days, between 23 April — when US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US would not lift the ban on raw materials to produce Covid vaccines because it is “not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated” – to 26 April, when US president Joe Biden assured PM Modi over the phone that the US would do everything it could to help India.

“India was there for us and we will be there for them,” Biden tweeted, referring to the export of hydroxychloroquine during the early pandemic.

In between, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke to his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, and several top leaders in the US establishment tweeted their promise to “fight the pandemic together.”

It now seems that apart from oxygen cylinders, concentrators, PPE tests, anti-viral drugs like remdesivir, and releasing raw materials so that the Serum Institute can produce the Covishield vaccine, the US will release 10 million AstraZeneca doses (which make up Covishield) and another 50 million by May-June. The release of the AstraZeneca vaccines is especially welcome, because the US has preferred to vaccinate its own citizens with the home-grown Pfizer and Moderna, and has been sitting on an unused AstraZeneca stockpile.


Also read: US says can share AstraZeneca doses with India over next two months, after FDA review


Biden’s U-turn

Several explanations are being offered for the US about-turn.

First, the US dropped the ball because Biden was busy focusing on the climate summit he was hosting in the hope of transforming the US into a green power. Second, Biden has been under considerable domestic pressure with his own party pulling in different directions, with little time for foreign policy.

Third, it was only when the US press began to publish and broadcast dire scenes from India, followed by New Delhi sending SOS signals, did DC sit up and listen.

Fourth, the seriousness of the US response is a measure of the fact that epidemiologists and scientists have begun to say that if the Indian pandemic is not controlled, several more infectious variants can emerge, which can further infect the world.

And fifth, as the US spokesman’s statement about US refusal went viral, questions began to be asked about India’s decision to join the Quad, especially if the Quad wasn’t able to help a fellow partner in distress –inevitably, raising questions about India’s own top leadership. That message also reached Washington DC.

Certainly, the days ahead will be tough. Unlike the time in 1991 when India mortgaged about 47 tonnes of gold to the Bank of England, accompanied by much shame and mortification, there’s no need to feel embarrassed in 2021. India needs the world’s help today – all the breast-beating on why and how it got here can be saved for another time.

The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

VIEW COMMENTS

11 COMMENTS

  1. The first reaction is usually shows the genuine intention. The selfish Americans only care about themselves, Israel and Western allies such as Britain and will throw India to the Wolves at the first opportunity.

    India has to make peace with China and Pakistan and trade her way to a prosperous future

  2. There is a world of difference between what happened in April 2020 and what is happening now. Then the entire globe was suffering. Now many countries, mostly the rich Western European countries and USA have fully recovered. India unfortunately has to face the unimaginable brunt of the most ferocious and destructive second wave. This the severest any country had in one year of the pandemic. Yes, we should have anticipated it but didn’t and remained totally unprepared, but that is a different story. This refers to the criticism launched by the free media in democratic countries. This criticism is not against the people of India, who face the brunt of the pandemic, the sad losses of our near dear ones. This ridicules our inane political leadership (belonging to all parties). The self-boasting made by these leadership under the pretense of a fake victory over the devious virus has been criticized. We have to take this criticism in good stead and improve our management of the pandemic. If the world is coming to our rescue let our ego not force us to refuse such aid made with good intentions.

  3. But there is shame. We as a nation like to have collective moral and policy paralysis as the state policy. Nothing significant will be done in any sector till 1000s of people are dead.

  4. Jyoti Malhotra never misses any opportunity to show her hypocrite left ideology in her opinions…she had explained 5 points for U-Turn by biden govt but she has also forgotten intentionally that if USA could ban raw material for indian manufacturers then in return indian govt could also banned the export of the raw material (by mumbai based company) for the USA vaccine manufacturers….to be honest lutyens gang will never be optimistic ….shame on you for your propogenda biased opinion…

    • Dear Jyoti Malhotra,
      I red whole article and found everything (crap) but the five appropriate reasons.
      You seems like age old women with half becked intellect.

  5. media that preaches others to avoid blame game itself is doing biased reporting for political reasons. it is best if it asks people to wear masks

  6. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US would not lift the ban on raw materials to produce Covid vaccines because it is “not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated, it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated”

    If ever there was a white supremacist statement coming from the highest echelons of US foreign policy administratos it is this. Where is the woke outrage from the Democrats?

  7. Our fascination for every thing FOREIGN is amazing and it even includes the abuse and ridicule of our own. For one part of the universe, following is music to ears without a sense of shame,
    1. “gross mishandling of the pandemic at home”,
    2. “arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions in India, with its crowd-loving PM basking while citizens suffocate”
    3. “cartoon of Prime Minister Modi riding a collapsed elephant with two oxygen cylinders next to it, the UK Guardian blaming Modi for its inadequate response to the “out of control” pandemic,”
    4. “India is under-counting its dead – has not produced similar public outrage”
    5. “ Singapore to send cryogenic oxygen tankers, the UK to promise to send oxygen concentrators and ventilators, Saudi Arabia to send 80 metric tonnes of oxygen tanks via ship, Russia to send oxygen equipment as well as anti-viral drugs like Favipiravir, and persuading even arch-rivals China and Pakistan to offer help – two things happened.”
    Are we, and that includes our parents not responsible for stealing the national resources and honesty, that has led to this colorful ridicule being heaped on us from all over the world. Barring Modi sitting on elephant everything else needs money which the freebooters have taken away over past 70 years from this country.
    Let one investigative journalist compile a figure totaling the amount of money that is alleged to have been stolen from the resources of this country since independence, along with our souls and that will tell you which universe you live in.

  8. One phrase I often use – apart from A packet of potato crisps – is Visible from outer space. Tragically, the Covid funerals are being captured in satellite imagery. At locations where they were not being conducted earlier, or with ten times the heat intensity where they were. Media, local as well as global, is duty bound to cover such an epic human tragedy. 38% of all new cases in India means we now constitute a risk to the whole world, including the incubation of more transmissible / lethal variants. 2. Personally I have no issue with graphic images, but that is a matter where journalists have expertise and experience. We have a lot of experience building brick walls, erecting tin sheets, but this is now too large to be hidden from the world’s appraising glance. Australia is # 25 in the Press Freedoms Index, India is # 142.

Comments are closed.