There is anger on the streets. Fear, angst, and an overall sense of unease have settled into the lifeblood of India’s towns and cities. Experts argue over the ‘viral variant’ of Covid-19 that has swept the nation, but the devastating speed of infection is all too telling. On 26 April, India recorded 3,23,023 cases. The healthcare system is overwhelmed. Frontline workers, the heroes of our times, manage – with incredible creativity, courage, and sheer dedication – to balance the scales between the rising tide of active cases and the increasing number of recoveries. In essence, their efforts administer the statistical averages that make front-page news every day in every Indian paper across the country.
The scientific community is stunned. “I was expecting fresh waves of infection,” argues one of India’s better-known virologists, Shahid Jameel, but, as he confesses, “I would not have dreamt that it would be this strong.” No doubt, the ‘puzzle’ behind the surge and the fragile state of India’s healthcare infrastructure is going to need introspection, examination, and a dedicated effort for reform and change.
Yet, for now, the primary objective is to survive the cruel windstorm that blows across India. A part of the solution, to arrest the speed of the tragedy at hand, lies in the external assistance that has been promised and provided to India.
Globalism helps India
From Ireland and the United Kingdom to the European Commission (driven by Germany and France); and from Bhutan – the Himalayan Kingdom with a population of less than a million – to Australia and Singapore, assistance and commitments have been swift to arrive. Pictures of oxygen concentrators and ventilators arriving from the United Kingdom; cryogenic oxygen containers being loaded onto an Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft in Singapore; and ground staff in India unpacking medical supplies from Europe – are being shared at a dizzying speed across social media.
These images do more than communicate the international assistance that is being made available to India. They directly speak to the trust in globalism that international relations experts pronounced either dead or paralysed at the onset of the outbreak of Covid-19, in 2020. To be sure, India has done much to shape the international conviction for globalism, despite the unfolding calamities within the boundaries of nation-states. India airlifted masks, gloves and therapeutics to different parts of the world soon after the pandemic broke. It has sent over 66 million vaccines manufactured in India – by way of aid or under contract – to every nook and corner of the world.
On 26 April, US President Joe Biden tweeted, “India was there for us, and we will be there for them.” He also got on a call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On 27 April, Biden told reporters, “We are sending immediately a whole series of help that he needs.”
Before Biden spoke out, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear that the United States was ‘working closely’ with partners in the Indian government. Two hours after Blinken’s public pledge to India, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared that the “United States stands in solidarity with the people of India”. Sullivan, too, underscored the promise of globalism that India has helped shape: “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained,” he underlined, “the United States is determined to help India in its time of need.” Sullivan announced a range of emergency measures for India. Thereon, several senior officials in the US government came out in open support for India.
India’s requests for emergency assistance and easing vaccine supply chains, had, to an extent, been addressed.
The US steps up and steps in
As Sullivan announced, oxygen generation, therapeutics, and emergency equipment will soon be deployed to India. The US NSA is in close contact with his counterpart in India, Ajit Doval. The US Development Finance Cooperation, as Sullivan made clear, is “funding a substantial expansion of manufacturing capability for BioE”, a Hyderabad-based vaccine manufacturing company. BioE is developing its own vaccine candidate along with the Ohio State Innovation Foundation. By the end of 2022, BioE is expected to produce a billion vaccines.
A major request, that the United States de-prioritise its own government contracts for manufacturing certain raw materials – access to which was prioritised under the US Defence Production Act – needed for vaccine production in India, was addressed. Tim Manning, the White House Covid-19 supply coordinator, confirmed on 26 April that the Biden administration diverted America’s own “pending orders of vaccine filters to India’s vaccine manufacturing effort”.
In effect, this meant that an ingredient needed for the production of Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), was no longer out of reach. Experts in India, in vaccine manufacturing, have confirmed to me that access to this critical ingredient is in the process of being de-prioritised, just as Manning said it would. It took less than 24 hours between when Manning tweeted the US government’s change of stance, and when vendors indicated their ability to transport the ingredient in question. This is nothing short of remarkable in the complex political economy of supply chain management.
The US government is yet to de-prioritise 12 ingredients for the production of Covovax, the vaccine co-developed by SII along with the global biotechnology company Novavax. This, however, may well come down to the complexities of corporate contracting, and further negotiations.
On 26 April, a day after Sullivan spoke with Doval, and publicly committed the US government to immediate assistance, Antony Blinken attended a meeting with 135 American CEOs, organised by the US-India Business Council (USIBC). Later this week, the results of that meeting will be publicly announced. What is increasingly clear is that India can expect substantial assistance packages from the United States, in the coming days. This could well include announcements on shipping some stocks of AstraZeneca vaccines from the United States.
Not a strategic break
There are, of course, questions as to why it took the US government this long to take such actions, especially with regards to de-prioritising ingredients needed for the production of Covishield. What is clear, however, is that once the urgency of the situation was duly communicated, and then duly understood, the Biden administration acted swiftly. Whether or not such actions were a result of growing public and civil-society pressure or whether US officials simply ‘dropped the ball‘, will only be known as students of history unearth the Biden archives decades from now.
But the point is clear – America has adhered to India’s requests, and it has done so with the kind of speed that might be expected of a major strategic partner. This explanation will not satisfy many. After all, it took the United States 3-4 days more than other world leaders in expressing solidarity and support. Social media is rife with conspiracy theories on why Biden waited. More serious commentators and analysts were just disappointed. As one editorial in a major Indian newspaper put it: “At a time of distress, friends matter. And it is disappointing when a friend does not instinctively reach out and help.” This is the sentiment that shaped the views of those who have long studied this crucial relationship between these two outsized democracies.
But these are not the views that are likely to permanently dampen the spirit of the US-India relationship. There is no strategic break in this relationship. For any serious onlooker, the facts ought to be clear, the US response, at least in rhetoric, to India’s requests for assistance has been substantial. For that spirit to rekindle, India and Indians need to see the images of American cargo and supplies being unloaded on Indian tarmacs across the country – and then, making their way to the frontlines in this war.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)