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India-made Covid vaccines open a new chapter in New Delhi’s continuing medical diplomacy

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Ever since the pandemic began, India’s goodwill has significantly improved among its neighbours in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as New Delhi continues to expand its soft power with timely delivery of needy drugs, as seen in last year, and vaccines, this year.

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Continuing its long-standing legacy as first responder to crises in the region, India reached out to most of its neighbours even before the World Health Organisation and the Covax initiative of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization).

While China too promised supplies to South Asian nations, only India delivered it so far. Perhaps, the only exception to this would be Islamabad, which has neither requested nor discussed the delivery of India-made Covid vaccines.

India’s vaccines

The beginning of 2021 saw India’s drugs regulator granting emergency use approval for two domestically-made vaccines.

One is Covishield, manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine producer in the world, and the other is Covaxin, manufactured by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech. The former is made in partnership with AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, and the latter entirely indigenous.

Government of India has procured hundreds of millions of vaccine doses at reduced prices offered by these two domestic companies. More domestic manufacturers are awaiting approval for their respective in the coming months. Currently, at this stage, India also has four vaccines in active clinical trials and fifteen vaccines in the pre-clinical stages, as well.

Adding a new dimension to ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy

For about seven years now, one of the key tenets of the Modi government’s foreign policy has been ‘Neighbourhood First’, as a means to improve cooperation with partner countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The pandemic opened up new prospects to this highly-held policy.

Even though India has its own big challenges such as the task lying ahead to inoculate a billion-plus population in phases, as it began the world’s largest inoculation drive for Covid-19 on January 16, with the first phase targeting 30 million frontline and healthcare workers.

Notwithstanding the domestic challenges, three days after the beginning of inoculation drive, Indian government announced its decision to dispatch vaccines to countries in its neighbourhood such as Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Seychelles, which began the very next day after the announcement, mostly as gifts and grant assistance, free of cost, and some on a commercial basis.

Just four days after India began its inoculation drive, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan became the first country in South Asia to receive India-made Covishield vaccines, followed by the Indian Ocean island state of Maldives on the same day.

As gift and grant assistance, India supplied “150,000 doses of vaccines to Bhutan, 100,000 doses to Maldives, one million doses to Nepal, two million doses to Bangladesh, 1.5 million doses to Myanmar,  100,000 to Mauritius, and 50,000 doses to Seychelles”, the country’s foreign ministry said.

Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will also receive India-made vaccines soon after getting regulatory clearances. These moves come amid Chinese attempts to extend its influence in India’s backyard, as seen in the recent years.

When the world plunged into coronavirus-induced lockdowns in March 2020, India quietly began its medical diplomacy bidding for a collective response to this new health emergency by convening a virtual meet of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and by leading the effort to institute a new relief fund to tackle the pandemic.

Previously, the regular meetings of the organisation remained stalled due to India’s bilateral tensions with Pakistan. But, New Delhi used the pandemic as a good opportunity to revive the regional grouping which was followed by governmental level meetings in the later months.

India has also provided training to several neighbouring countries to enhance and strengthen their clinical trials of vaccines, through various assistance programmes.

‘Pharmacy of the world’

Being the global hub of vaccine production, New Delhi’s diplomacy is very much focused on reaching out to all needy countries, and it is not limited to the immediate neighbourhood. Throughout the pandemic period, the world also saw India projecting its soft power beyond its traditional spheres of influence to a truly global scale.

An effective conduct of medical diplomacy by providing medicinal tablets last year and this year through the supply of domestically-made Covid vaccines, India reaffirmed its position as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, being the world leader in the production of generic drugs and vaccines, and making three-fifth of the world’s total vaccines.

Even while battling the challenge of inoculating a very large population, Indian Prime Minister has recently stated that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used for the benefit of ‘all humanity’ to fight the pandemic.

Contractual supply of India-made vaccines to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, and Morocco are also currently underway.

Indian government has made clear that continue to supply vaccines to friendly and partner countries even while the second phase of inoculation drive goes on at home. India also comes with an experience of running a successful immunization programme for more than four decades now.

Being a leader in drugs manufacturing, India was approached by many countries including the United States, last year, for the supply of medicinal tablets like hydroxychloroquine, which was exported to more than a hundred countries around the world from Asia to Africa toLatin America.

India also exported other tablets such as remdesivir and paracetamol, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to a large number of countries around the world.

When it comes to immunization against Covid through vaccines, India’s potential lies well beyond just its domestic population due to its invaluable experience in the pharmaceutical front.

Statistics say one in every six humans on earth reside in India. If this Asian powerhouse succeeds in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, it simply means, a sizeable proportion of humanity is saved, so do the countries it assisted, contributing to the global response and continuing efforts of the scientific community in bringing the pandemic to an end.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Biden-Putting meeting: Live from Geneva

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19:00 The places of the flags on the Mont Blanc bridge on which President Biden and President Putin will pass to reach the meeting venue on Wednesday usually hold the flags of the different Swiss cantons. Not today. The American and Russian flags have been placed to welcome the two leaders. 

18:00 A day before the Geneva summit: Hotel Intercontinental where the American delegation and probably President Biden himself is staying, how the city looks like a day before the meeting, what are the security measures like, why isn’t the UN involved and are the usual protests expected?

Iveta Cherneva with live video political commentary from Geneva one day ahead of the Biden-Putin Summit

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Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?

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In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have been trying to bolster their ‘Soft Power’ in a number of ways; by promoting tourism, tweaking their immigration policies to attract more professionals and foreign students and focusing on promoting art and culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken the lead in this direction (in May 2017, UAE government set up a UAE Soft Power Council which came up with a comprehensive strategy for the promotion of the country’s Soft Power). Under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has also been seeking to change its international image, and it’s Vision 2030 seeks to look beyond focusing on economic growth. In the Global Soft Power Index 2021, Saudi Arabia was ranked at number 24 and number 2 in the Gulf region after the UAE (the country which in the past had a reputation for being socially conservative, has hosted women’s sports events and also hosted the G20 virtually last year)

Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?

   One other important step in the direction of promoting Soft Power in the GCC, is the attempt to popularize cricket in the Gulf. While the Sharjah cricket ground (UAE)  hosted many ODI (One Day International )tournaments, and was witness to a number of thrillers between India and Pakistan, match fixing allegations led to a ban on India playing cricket at non-regular venues for a duration of 3 years (for a period of 7 years from 2003, Sharjah did not get to host any ODI). The Pakistan cricket team has been playing its international home series at Sharjah, Abu Dhabu and Dubai for over a decade (since 2009) and the sixth season of the Pakistan Super League is also being played in UAE. Sharjah has also hosted 9 test matches (the first of which was played in 2002).

 Sharjah hosted part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament in 2014, and last year too the tournament was shifted to UAE due to covid19 (apart from Sharjah, matches were played at Dubai and Abu Dhabi). This year again, the UAE and possibly Oman are likely to host the remaining matches of the IPL which had to be cancelled due to the second wave of Covid19. The ICC Men’s T20 World Cup to be held later this year (October-November 2021), which was actually to be hosted by India,  could also be hosted not just in the UAE, but Oman as well (there are two grounds, one of them has floodlights). International Cricket Council (ICC) is looking for an additional venue to UAE, because a lot of cricket is being played there, and this may impact the pitches. The ICC while commenting on the possibility of the T20 World cup being hosted in the Middle East said:

, “The ICC Board has requested management [to] focus its planning efforts for the ICC Men’s  T20 World Cup 2021 on the event being staged in the UAE with the possibility of including another venue in the Middle East’

GCC countries are keen not just to host cricketing tournaments, but also to increase interest in the game. While Oman has a team managed by an Indian businessman, Saudi Arabia has set up the SACF (Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation) in 2020 and it has started the National Cricket Championship which will have more than 7,000 players and 36 teams at the school level. Peshawar Zalmi, a Pakistani franchise T20 cricket team, representing the city of Peshawar the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which plays in the Pakistan’s domestic T20 cricket league – the Peshawar cricket league —  extended an invitation to the SACF, to play a friendly match against it. It’s owner Javed Afridi had extended the invitation to the Saudi Arabian team in April 2021.  Only recently, Chairman of SACF Prince Saud bin Mishal  met with India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Ausaf Saeed, to discuss ways for promoting the game in Saudi Arabia. He also visited the ICC headquarters at Dubai and apart from meeting officials of ICC also took a tour of Sharjah cricket ground.

GCC countries have a number of advantages over other potential neutral venues. First, the required infrastructure is already in place in some countries, and there is no paucity of financial resources which is very important. Second, there is a growing interest in the game in the region, and one of the important factors for this is the sizeable South Asian expat population. Third, a number of former cricketers from South Asia are not only coaching cricket teams, but also being roped in to create more enthusiasm with regard to the game. Fourth, UAE along with other GCC countries, could also emerge as an important venue for the resumption of India-Pakistan cricketing ties.

Conclusion

In conclusion, if GCC countries other than UAE — like Saudi Arabia and Oman  — can emerge as important cricketing venues, their ‘Soft Power’ appeal is likely to further get strengthened especially vis-à-vis South Asia. South Asian expats, who have contributed immensely to the economic growth of the region, and former South Asian cricketers will have an important role to play in popularizing the game in the Gulf. Cricket which is already an important component of the GCC — South Asia relationship, could help in further strengthening people to people linkages.

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Analyzing the role of OIC

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Composed of fifty-seven countries and spread over four continents, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second-largest intergovernmental body following the United Nations (UN). And it is no secret that the council was established in the wake of an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Safeguarding and defending the national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its member states is the significant provision of the OIC’s charter. OIC charter also undertakes to strengthen the bond of unity and solidarity among member states. Uplifting Islamic values, practicing cooperation in every sphere among its members, contributing to international peace, protecting the Islamic sites, and assisting suppressed Muslim community are other significant features of its charter. 

Recently, the world witnessed the 11-days long conflict between Hamas and Israel. In a recent episode of the clash between two parties, Israel carried out airstrikes on Gaza, claiming many innocent Palestinian lives. The overall death toll in the territory rose to 200, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1305 injured, says Hamas-run health ministry. This event was met with resentment from people across the world, and they condemned Israeli violence. After 11 days of violence, the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. The event of Israeli violence on Palestinians has called the role of OIC into question. The council, formed in the aftermath of the onslaught on Al-Aqsa mosque, seemed to adopt a lip service approach to the conflict. However, the call for stringent measures against Israeli aggression by the bloc was not part of its action. 

Likewise, the Kashmir issue, which has witnessed atrocities of Indians on innocent Kashmiris, looks up to the OIC for its resolution. Last year, during the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Niamey, Niger, the CFM reaffirmed its strong support for the Kashmir cause. The OIC categorically rejected illegal and unilateral actions taken by India on August 5 to change the internationally recognized disputed status of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jam­mu and Kashmir and demanded India rescind its illegal steps. However, the global community seems to pay deaf ears to the OIC’s resolution. The Kashmir issue and the Palestine issue are the core issues of the world that are witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis. And the charter of the bloc that aims to guard the Muslim ummah’s interest rings hollow. About a year ago, the event that made rounds on electronic and social media was the occurring of the KL summit, which reflected another inaction of the OIC. The move of influential Muslim countries (Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia), to sail on the idea to establish another forum to counter the OIC, manifested the rift in the bloc.  

Many OIC countries are underdeveloped and poorly governed and are home to instability, violence, and terrorism. The consequences of the violence and terrorism in the OIC countries have been devastating. According to Forbes, 7 out of 10 countries, which suffer most from terrorism are OIC members. The Syrian conflict is another matter of concern in the Mideast, looking up to OIC for a way out. An immense number of people have lost their lives in the Civil war in Syria.

Several factors contribute to the inefficiency of the bloc. The first and foremost reason is the Saudi-Iran stalemate. Influential regional powers (Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in the Mideast share strained links following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both sides dissent each other on many fronts. Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs, using terrorism as a tool to intimidate neighbors, fuelling sectarianism, and equipping proxies to de-stabilize and overthrow the legitimate government. Locked in a proxy war in the Mideast, the KSA and Iran vie for regional dominance. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program is met with strong resentment in the KSA since it shifts the Balance of Power towards Iran. Such developments play a vibrant role in their stalemate, and the bloc’s effectiveness is hostage to the Saudi-Iran standoff.

Political and social exclusion in many OIC states is the norm of the day, contributing to upheaval and conflict. In OIC countries, the level of political participation and political and social integration is weak. This fact has rendered OIC countries vulnerable to unrest. Arab Spring in 2011 stands as the best example. Furthermore, conflicts, since the mid-1990s, have occurred in weak states that have encountered unrest frequently. 

Saudi Arabia has tightened its grip on the OIC. The reason being, the OIC secretariat and its subsidiary bodies are in the KSA. More importantly, the KSA’s prolific funding to the bloc enhances its influence on the bloc. One example includes, in the past, the KSA barred an Iranian delegation from the OIC meeting in Jeddah. Saudi authorities have not issued visas for the Iranian participants, ministry spokesman, says Abbas Mousavi. “The government of Saudi Arabia has prevented the participation of the Iranian delegation in the meeting to examine the deal of the century plan at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,” Mousavi said, the Fars news agency reported. Given the Iranian growing influence and its access to nuclear capabilities, the KSA resorted to using financial leverage to reap support from Arab countries against Iran. For instance, in past, Somalia and several other Arab states such as Sudan and Bahrain received a commitment of financial aid from Saudi Arabia on the same day they cut ties with Iran. Furthermore, the summits of OIC, GCC, and Arab League are perceived as an effort by Saudi Arabia to amass support against Tehran. 

Division in the Muslim world and their clash of interests is yet another rationale behind its inefficacy. These days, many Muslim countries are bent on pursuing their interests rather than paying commitment to their principles, that is, working collectively for the upkeep of the Muslim community. Last year, the governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that they had agreed to the full normalization of relations. Following this, the Kingdom of Bahrain became another Muslim country to normalize its links with Israel. Such moves by the Islamic countries weaken the OIC agenda against Israel. 

OIC’s efficacy would be a distant dream unless the Saudi-Iran deadlock finds its way. For this purpose, Pakistan can play a vital role in mediating between these two powers. Pakistan has always been an active player in the OIC and played its role in raising its voice against Islamophobia, Palestine Issue, and the Kashmir issue. Shunning their interests and finding the common goals of the Muslim ummah, should be the utmost priority for the members of the bloc. Every OIC member ought to play its part in the upkeep of the bloc. Furthermore, a split in the bloc should come to an end since it leads to the polarization of member states towards regional powers. Many OIC countries are rich in hydrocarbons (a priceless wealth, which is the driver for the growth of a country); if all OIC members join hands and enhance their partnership in this sphere they can fight against energy security. And OIC is the crux for magnifying cooperation among its member states to meet their energy needs.

In this era of globalization, multilateralism plays a pivotal part. No one can deny the significance of intergovernmental organizations since they serve countries in numerous ways. In the same vein, OIC can serve Muslim ummah in multiple ways; if it follows a course of adequate functioning.

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