UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to cancel his visit to India is not just a censure of India’s ability to handle its Covid crisis, it is a question mark on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, defined by his refusal to put science before faith in this grave hour.
This is the second time this year that Johnson has cancelled his trip to India – in January, the Covid lockdown at home forced him to drop out of the Republic Day celebrations where he was chief guest. That late decision meant that for the first time in 55 years, India did not have a chief guest on Republic Day.
But Johnson knew he didn’t want to go down in history as a latter-day Nero who played music as his beloved London was damaged by a virus.
Modi, on the other hand, went ahead with every election rally as the Covid graph climbed and appealed to a top seer about reducing participation at the Kumbh super-spreader only when the head of the Niranjani Akhada died. Only a few days before, foreign vaccines like the Russian-made Sputnik and several others were given emergency use authorisation – Sputnik and Dr Reddy’s Labs have been waiting at least since December 2020 for the green light.
It is also clear that the Modi government put all vaccine imports on hold because an “atmanirbhar vaccine” from Bharat Biotech was going to be the super bullet that dealt with infections. Nothing wrong with Bharat Biotech, of course, because vaccine development is no mean task – but the Hyderabad-based company has simply not been able to produce the required numbers, which has meant that the national vaccination programme has not kept up to speed with infection.
Now, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan is saying that Bharat Biotech will produce ten times the current amount of vaccine by September – although this may be too late for states like Maharashtra, which is badly reeling under the surge events even as MNS chief Raj Thackeray urged the Centre to allow the state to buy vaccines independently but to no avail.
The Bangladesh conundrum
In fact, Jharkhand has also asked the Centre for permission to buy remdesivir, the anti-viral injection widely being used in Covid treatment, from Bangladesh. The neighbouring country is already exporting the drug worldwide and is willing to sell to India. (If you’re wondering why Bangladesh isn’t attracting copyright violation from Gilead, the US biopharmaceutical company that produces remdesivir, it is because as a Least Developed Country, Bangladesh is exempt.)
The Bangladesh example is both instructive and emblematic of India’s Covid response with the outside world. First, when the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi was shut down in March 2020 and the event termed a “Covid super-spreader”, several hundred foreign nationals, including Bangladeshis, were caught in its snare.
For several months, these men were held behind bars; when they were released, they were only allowed to go home after pleading guilty of violating the Epidemic Act and other visa regulations. Congregating without masks in a circumscribed space, as we know by now, is hardly a violation – otherwise thousands of sadhus attending the Kumbh Mela would be in jail.
Second, Bangladesh is one of 80 countries worldwide that has been a recipient of ‘Vaccine Maitri,’ an initiative that has ably showcased India’s soft power, in this case by supplying 644 lakh vaccine doses of which about half, 357 lakh, have been sold commercially.
In the autumn of 2020, in preparation for vaccinating its adult population, Bangladesh paid $60 million for 30 million doses to the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII). It has so far received 10.3 million vaccines – of which 3.3 million are a gift from India (2 million came early, then PM Modi went with 1.2 million when he travelled to Dhaka as guest of honour for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s Liberation war, and then last week, Army chief M.M, Naravane took 100,000 doses).
Short of vaccine to play maitri-maitri
Now, Bangladesh has vaccinated 6 million of its population with one dose and wants the Serum Institute to fulfil its pledge – for which the latter has received the money – so it can start vaccinating people with the second dose. But ‘Vaccine Maitri’ has run aground and the Centre has banned export of vaccines because of the domestic crisis.
So what happens to Bangladesh, with whom PM Modi has recently professed undying friendship?
For the moment, at least, Bangladesh is stuck between a rock and a hard place, although External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has said that India will fulfil its commitments. Sources say Bangladesh is wondering what to do next – should it start importing vaccines from other countries, such as Russia and China, which seem to have ample stocks? The question is, can people be vaccinated with one dose of AstraZeneca and one dose of SinoPharm or Sputnik, as the case may be?
While Bangladesh is holding its breath, other countries have started turning up the pressure. The European Union has asked India to allow it to buy 10 million doses from the Serum Institute, while Britain is pressing India to export the remaining half of the 10 million doses it had ordered.
India’s international reputation has already taken a hammer blow with politicians like BJP leader and former Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat saying things like, “Ma Ganga will not allow corona to spread.”
If PM Modi fails to start listening to the scientific community to damage control the Covid surge, the cancellation of the UK prime minister’s visit will be the least of his problems.
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)