Prime Minister Narendra Modi (file photo)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (file photo)

Yearender 2020: Health diplomacy dominates India's foreign policy amidst Covid-19

By Vishu Adhana | Updated: Dec 29, 2020 21:17 IST

New Delhi [India], December 29 (ANI): When 2020 began, no one might have envisaged that it will be marred by unprecedented health crises that will bring the world to a standstill, overwhelm the health care systems, and lead to the suspension of cross-border travel for several months.

Over the months, the Covid-19, which is believed to have originated from Wuhan city of China, has caused millions of deaths and destruction globally. With over 81 million positive cases worldwide and more than 1.77 million deaths, economies pushed back to minus growth rates. Even the most developed nations failed to cope with the requirement of ICUs, ventilators, and medicines.

Diplomatic relations and multilateral systems between the countries were also affected by the pandemic as priorities of governments shifted to health care and evacuating their citizens from Covid-19-affected regions.

With a majority of countries turning inward to tackle the pandemic at home, India was one of the few countries which understood that multilateral collaboration is the need of the hour to come to grips with the mammoth problem.

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not take a single foreign trip for the first time since taking office in 2014, he held several virtual summits with leaders in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, Luxembourg, European Union, Uzbekistan, and Denmark.

He also made extensive phone calls to keep in touch with world leaders in the absence of in-person meetings. He used telephonic conversations to express condolences to some and assure medical supplies to many. He also congratulated those who assumed office in the middle of the pandemic.

India pushed for the resurrection of old multilateral forums like SAARC and NAM to coordinate regional preparation and chart out plans to contain the pandemic. New Delhi had organised a video conference with the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in March. It offered USD10 million for a voluntary Emergency Fund to be used by the SAARC nations in case of scarcity of essentials.

In May, PM Modi participated in the online Summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Contact Group, held to discuss the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

He also attended several virtual multilateral summits including G20, India-ASEAN Summit and BRICS. India also hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Council of heads of government summit in November.

A foreign affairs expert said that India's foreign policy has found new ways of engaging with the world through virtual summits and it has been very proactive in engaging at top levels with the world during the pandemic.

Harsh V Pant, a professor at King’s College London, believes that there has been a considerable push from the Indian government that India should not lose its momentum in its global engagement.

"India's foreign policy has found new ways of engaging the world, a lot of it through virtual summits. India has been very proactive in engaging at top levels with the world. You have a lot of Summit level engagement. India diplomats have been travelling also. I think there has been a considerable push that India should not lose its momentum in its global engagement and that’s very important. They are finding new ways of engaging. One of the ways is finding a new mechanism. The other is to find new opportunities for projecting leadership. Prime Minister Modi was very proactive, he mobilises SAARC, he mobilises G 20," Pant told ANI.

With numerous countries around the world witnessing shortages of medicine and expertise, New Delhi had dispatched rapid medical response teams and medicines to them. Indian officials held talks with their counterparts in different countries, at first, digitally and now in person, on issues such as health diplomacy.

The first batch of humanitarian aid was dispatched to the neighbouring countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.

India, known as the pharmacy of the world, commercially supplied Hydroxychloroquine and active pharmaceutical ingredient of HCQ to 82 countries.

In October, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said that India has supplied medicines to over 150 countries during Covid-19, which will eventually help in strengthening New Delhi's branding as the pharmacy of the world.

"At the end of the day, we have supplied medicines to 150 countries during Covid. More than half of them were grants that we gave them. Now you look this was a business contribution because somebody in India produces that. We took advantage of it, we use that to build bridges, but as a result, we have today built a branding, strengthened our branding as the pharmacy of the world. So, for me, having that as a partner is a very important part of the overall scheme of things," Jaishankar had said.

As far as personal protection equipment (PPE) is concerned, India has produced more than 60 million PPEs and almost 150 million N-95 masks till October, from zero in March this year. Moreover, India has so far exported more than 20 million PPE and over 40 million N-95 masks.

India has also provided economic aid to many countries including the Maldives and Sri Lanka to mitigate the impact of coronavirus. In September, India handed over financial assistance of USD 250 million to the government of Maldives as budgetary support to mitigate the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. New Delhi had finalised a $400-million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the SAARC framework to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.

In May, India had started a Vande Bharat mission the massive repatriation operation planned by the Indian government to bring back stranded Indians in different parts of the world in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Nearly 4 million Indians have returned from abroad after the government launched the 'Vande Bharat' evacuation mission on May 7 in view of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ministry of External Affairs said.

Former diplomat Kanwal Sibbal believes that New Delhi is doing what it can in terms to address the COVID-19 challenge not only domestically but regionally and globally to best of its capability.

"India is doing what it can in terms to address the Covid-19 challenge not only domestically but regionally and globally to the best of its capability. We have a huge responsibility for our people but at the same time, India has not withdrawn into itself and has provided much assistance medicine when demands were made. We have sent medical workers to countries to deal with the pandemic apart from sharing practices with regard to Covid-19," he told ANI

Now, at the end of the year, the good news is pouring in from around the world regarding the development of vaccines by multiple players. Several countries like US, UK, Russia and Israel have even begun inoculations.

After successfully supplying essential medicine to the world, India is now looking to be a supplier of Covid-19 vaccines.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier said that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis.

Recently, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had organised a visit of 64 foreign envoys to leading biotech companies in Hyderabad, Bharat Biotech and Biological E, displays India’s vaccine diplomacy and achievements, besides reach-out efforts to ensure future cooperation on the Covid-19 front.

According to MEA, the envoys were briefed on India’s indigenous efforts to develop Covid-19 vaccines, including ongoing clinical trials. India’s R&D facilities, manufacturing capacity, foreign collaborations, etc. in the fields of pharmaceuticals, including vaccine production, were highlighted.

"As the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, India will contribute significantly to global efforts for producing Covid-19 vaccines. India is committed to partnering with all interested countries in vaccine-related efforts, in the service of humanity," the MEA had said in a statement. (ANI)