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.
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.
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.
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)