As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar returns home from the G-7 foreign ministerial meeting in London — where he was isolated over a false Covid alarm — the news is that India will not be distracted by gloom-doom coverage of the second wave of the pandemic in the Western press, whether in the prestigious Lancet health journal, or in The New Yorker.
In an editorial, the Lancet said that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic”, while noted journalist Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker to say that “the coronavirus thrives off of complacent leaders, such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
But this week, New Delhi has more pressing issues at hand, especially at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The news is that Europe is unhappy about following the United States’ lead in waiving Covid vaccine patents, so that companies in developing countries can ramp up production and protect people from the damaging effects of the rapidly mutating coronavirus.
Certainly, the US has kept its word. Along with planeloads of material aid to India, the Joe Biden administration ignored its own pharma giant Pfizer’s concerns last week to support at the WTO the waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines. US representative to the WTO Katherine Tai tweeted that “extraordinary times and circumstances call for extraordinary measures.”
Over the weekend, though, all hell broke loose in Europe. At a European Union (EU) summit in Porto, Portugal, several leaders expressed their unhappiness at being dragged by the US into supporting India’s demand for patent waiver at the WTO.
India-EU, not on the same page
Notably, PM Modi, also on the weekend, held a virtual summit with EU leaders, which included EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council head Charles Michel, and Portugal President Antonio Costa – who is of Indian descent, from Goa, and occasionally known as the ‘Gandhi of Lisbon’ because he turned around a crime-ridden neighbourhood when he was the city’s mayor.
Over four tweets, Modi waxed eloquent about the revival of India-EU negotiations on trade and investment, adding, “Our collaboration is essential to stopping the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuring a sustainable and inclusive recovery in a more digital and greener world.”
But the EU was not having any of it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who first made her dissatisfaction felt, pointed out that even if there was a waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines, it would help the developing countries only in the long run.
Vaccine production is costly and takes time. India, which needs the vaccines as soon as possible to protect its population, needs much more urgent measures, goes the German argument.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government signed an agreement with India to sell 36 Rafale fighter jets for Rs 59,000 crore, echoed Merkel. Accusing the US of not sharing its unused stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccine, Macron said, “100 per cent of the vaccines produced in the US are for the American market.”
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said bluntly, “The fact of liberalising the patents, even temporarily, does not guarantee the production of the vaccine.”
Both France and Italy asked the US and the UK to remove the export ban on vaccines. Despite denials by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Europeans insist the UK has gone back on its promise to export the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU.
Macron and Draghi are partially right. The US, which only recently promised to export some of the AstraZeneca stockpile that it is not using to India, has invoked various domestic laws preventing its companies from exporting the vaccines, and poured money into domestic pharma giants so as to fast-forward the production of vaccines for its own population.
India did nothing of the sort, and exported 6.6 crore doses to 93 countries — enough to vaccinate the adult population of both Delhi and Mumbai — under its Vaccine Maitri initiative, essentially an effort to counter China’s expanding vaccine influence abroad. India seemed so taken with its own efforts it seems unlikely that the Ministry of External Affairs even checked with the Ministry of Health to ask how many doses India could spare.
World has questions for India
Over the last few weeks, then, the world has been asking one question: What has India done to contain the pandemic, even as it now demands the world move heaven and earth at the WTO? Apart from Modi arrogantly declaring an early end of the pandemic, New Delhi did not genome sequence enough samples, which would have given the information to enable the scientific tools to deal with the mutating virus, nor did it ramp up vaccine production in time.
Off the record, diplomats are now asking much more. Why is India not buying vaccines from abroad, when, for example, the EU has just signed a deal with Pfizer to buy 1.8 billion doses, at $23 a dose? Is that too expensive for India? Second, how much money has India allocated for purchasing vaccines? The answer, only Rs 35,000 crore, is just for states to manage their “vaccination drive” and none for the Centre. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is now saying that the corpus could go up according to the demand.
Fact is, India has recently changed its policy for importing vaccines, except that it is still hampered by too many ifs and buts – including the precondition that imported vaccines will not be used by the government and all authorisations for approvals and licenses will be the responsibility of the importer. Dr Reddy’s Labs, so far, is the only Indian company to have signed on with Russia’s RDIF for Sputnik V.
As India logs in more than 4,000 deaths a day and infections cross 400,000 on a regular basis, there’s perhaps just one more question left: How much worse can it get?
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)