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Beware the vaccine diplomacy model of China, focus on rapid vaccination at home

In the topsy-turvy world created by Covid-19, the most depressing sight is that of vaccine nationalism. Rich countries like the US display this by hoarding their stocks and refusing to share them with anyone else. Others like China and India give away doses to enhance their global image, even before they have vaccinated their own people.

From the outset, China has used Covid to push its diplomatic agenda. Last year when the infection was at its peak Beijing offered masks, PPE suits and expertise to deal with the pandemic in various countries. Beijing was also seeking to cover its guilt for delaying informing the world of the pandemic. Now it has created a vast supply chain to aid a vaccine effort in Africa, Middle-East and Latin America. China is, according to its foreign ministry, to supply vaccines to 60 countries, and more than 20 are already using it.

Where China goes India cannot be far behind. India distributed 6.8 million doses of vaccines free to indigent South Asian and Indian Ocean Region neighbours. Another 10 million doses are commercial exports of a vaccine. New Delhi lacks the usual means of lubricating its foreign policy – grants and loans, or military equipment at “friendship” prices. So South Block has decided to use the instrumentality of vaccines in a pandemic year.

There is, however, one uncomfortable reality: This generosity has deprived as many Indians, 6.8 million and counting, of timely succour, since some 17,000 persons a day are still falling ill and over a 100 are dying daily of Covid. Being generous is one thing, but doing so at the cost of Indian lives and suffering is quite another.

There has been some suggestion that this big-heartedness is linked to India’s inability to use the vaccine stocks available in the country effectively. According to the FT vaccine tracker, as of February 24, India had delivered just 0.9 doses per 100 people, among the lowest in the world. Ironically, India was behind Seychelles, Oman, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal to whom we generously gifted vaccines. But, praise be to all, we are ahead of Pakistan.

The speed of delivery and the spread of the vaccination is important, if the purpose of the exercise – to achieve herd immunity – is to be achieved. So far some 12.4 million people have been vaccinated in India. But we should be vaccinating 2 million people a day where we have actually only reached a figure of 0.38 million per day.

Dressing up numbers, or massaging the news, is par for the course for governments. Take India’s GDP, said to be the sixth highest in the world, but the figure that really tells our story is the per capita GDP, in which department we figure at the 125th rank, to go by the World Bank.

Something similar is happening with the Covid vaccination issue.

A large section of media reportage on the vaccine rollout is relentlessly positive and even euphoric. News columns are clogged with reports of the plans around the “world’s largest vaccination programme”, rather than their shoddy implementation. A breathless news item had claimed last month that India had had the fastest rollout in the world of a million doses delivered in six days, another declared India to be the second fastest to achieve 10 million vaccinations. Earlier came the claim that India would vaccinate 300 million people by July 2021.

Competing with China is a mug’s game. That’s why smart countries like the US and UK are not doing it; they are singularly focussed on what’s important – rapid vaccination to achieve herd immunity. China is the kind of country that will do anything to win. As Frank Dikotter revealed, amidst the Great Famine of 1958-1962 that killed an estimated 40 million of its own people, China exported food in a bid to burnish its international image. That’s hardly a great example to follow.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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