You have to be quite reckless to be seen like defending both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. Even if on the tiny issue of a two-rupee, or three-cents-a-pill of a drug, so old it was in the market for two full years before I was born, and went off-patent when I was 32. Namely, hydroxychloroquine.
And you must be absolutely nuts if at the same time you also take on anti-Americanism, the most durable of our ideological hypocrisies. Cast in titanium.
But after four decades in journalism and courting danger — and abuse — from all sides, let me do some plain-speaking.
To begin with, as the currently fashionable expression goes: Aap chronology samajhiye. It was in his daily White House press conference on 19 March that Trump first mentioned hydroxychloroquine, or HCQ as it’s popularly known. He said there had been encouraging results among coronavirus patients administered HCQ and Z-Pak (American brand name for antibiotic Azithromycin).
Trump can be accused of anything but not understatement or discretion. So, he called this a game-changer. On 21 March, he re-asserted this in a tweet.
On 22 March, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) issued a notification prescribing HCQ as a chemoprophylactic (preventive) for health personnel as well as family members looking after a Covid-19 patient. This set off a run on the drug.
While Trump was roundly attacked and ridiculed as usual in the American media for ‘misusing’ his office to plug prescription medications, the US placed large orders with leading generic manufacturers in India. This fact was scooped by ThePrint’s fine health and pharma reporter Himani Chandna in a story published on 22 March. Three days later, India notified a ban on export of HCQ.
Alarmed at the prospect of hoarding and panicky self-medication, the central government issued a notification on 26 March listing it in Schedule H1, thereby restricting its retail sale.
Remember, the ban had come after the US, and likely also Brazil, had already placed orders and also paid some advances to private Indian firms for what was, after all, a routine, long off-patent, cheap drug. Or drugs, as Brazil wanted paracetamol too.
After Democrats and the media had had fun with “Dr Trump”, on 20 March, New York Governor and current liberal darling Andrew Cuomo told anchor Sean Hannity that he’s getting 10,000 doses of HCQ and Azithromycin and releasing it for a trial on 1,100 patients in his state, now the global Covid-19 epicentre.
On Saturday (4 April) morning, Trump called Modi. In the evening at his press conference he said that he had requested Modi to release the supplies of HCQ “we had ordered”. He said Modi said he will consider it. He, of course, went on to say that they (India) make a lot of it, which is true. He further added that India also needs a lot of it (true), because it has 1.5 billion people (not true).
Sunday, 5 April, morning, Trump spoke with Modi again. In reply to a journalist’s question at his Monday evening (Washington time, remember, so around 4 am IST Tuesday) press briefing, Trump let it out that he had had another conversation with Modi Sunday morning (Washington time) and that India was likely to release the HCQ US had ordered earlier. What if India says no, the reporter asked, will there be a retaliation? I don’t believe that is what they are planning to do at all, said Trump, India and US are doing very well with each other. And then added, as an afterthought, if they say no, of course there may be retaliation, why wouldn’t that be?
We woke up to outrage this morning. Trump twisted Modi’s arm and he gave in. India is down on its knees in front of the Americans again. Modi has sold Indian sovereignty and Covid-19 patients’ lives to Trump.
Now, the little point I had deliberately excluded in my chronology for suspense. Three respected media organisations, HT Group’s Mint, The Hindu, and (please allow me to add) ThePrint, had reported Monday, 6 April, 12 to 18 hours before Trump’s Monday evening presser, that India had already decided to lift the ban.
In fact, The Hindu and Mint had recorded that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had called as well, and the ban was lifted for him too.
It was all done and dusted before Trump’s “threat” this morning. Please do remember the time difference between Washington and New Delhi.
But facts are boring, you see. Why let facts come in the way of your ‘tube-light’ outrage?
HCQ and paracetamol are cheap, generic, mass-produced drugs long off-patent. India has the unique strength to make these for the world now. It should use it, not squat on it. Covid-19 has made these drugs, usually sold in bulk, like a commodity, valuable to the world. If heads of state are calling in for these, it is India’s opportunity. And, by the way, the raw material or API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) for paracetamol comes from China. From Wuhan, in fact.
And surrender to America? What did we call it through the 1960s, when we lived a ship-to-mouth existence? It was also our most anti-American decade. Today, the Americans need an ordinary drug, and we must deny it to them? The reason we call unthinking anti-Americanism our most durable, cast-in-titanium hypocrisy.