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Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy: Bangladesh’s perspective

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Photo: Xinhua

The vaccination campaign in Bangladesh is set to suffer a major setback. The Serum Institute of India, the only source of Covid-19 vaccines for Bangladesh to date, cannot export vaccines anytime soon due to the export ban imposed by the Indian government. Currently, India is grappling with an unprecedented Covid-19 crisis with more than 300,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths every day. The country of 1.3 billion people has recorded a staggering total of 18 million infections and 200,000 deaths so far. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Indian government trying to protect its people from the deadly virus has imposed an export ban on vaccines.  

India’s decision not to send vaccines to other countries comes as a big blow for Bangladesh since the country only relied on vaccines provided by Serum. As per an agreement signed in December last year, the Bangladesh government was supposed to receive 30 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine named Covishield from Serum. Although Serum was supposed to provide 5 million doses per month,Bangladesh has received only 7 million doses in two instalments while another 3.2 million was sent as a gift by Delhi.  

Official figures suggest that Bangladesh rolled out mass inoculation on 7 February with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and so far, nearly 5.78 million people have received the first jab. Around 3.5 million people are yet to get their second dose, but the government only has approximately 2 million doses in hand. According to the health officials, at the current rate of use, the vaccine stock of the country could run out within two weeks. This is indeed a big blow for the country in its fight against the grim pandemic. According to media reports published in March this year, Bangladesh is supposed to receive almost 10 million shots under the global arrangement called COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX). However, it is also not clear when these vaccines will reach Bangladesh.

Now, uncertainty looms around Covid-19 vaccination in Bangladesh when it passes through the worst phase of the pandemic with nearly 100 daily casualties. Although Bangladesh has tried to get the vaccines from India through diplomatic efforts, one can assume that the problem is not being solved. India has admitted its inability to export the rest of the promised vaccines. Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has said that it may not send the rest of the vaccines before June/July until the situation improves in India. However, to ensure a second dose for everyone, Bangladesh has to keep negotiating with Serum to bring at least 2 million vials by the end of May if it is not possible to get 8 million doses for which Bangladesh has paid in advance. If necessary, Bangladesh has to communicate at the highest level.

Although late, Bangladesh has finally started to engage in vaccine diplomacy coming out of Indian influence. In a multilateral effort to ensure vaccine and oxygen supply among the countries, Bangladesh has recently joined the China-led initiative, called “China-South Asia Platform for Covid-19 consultation, Cooperation, and Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery. The first virtual meeting of this cooperation was recently joined by the foreign ministers of Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Several vital issues, such as establishing a Covid Emergency Medical Facility, a Poverty Alleviation Centre, and exploring e-commerce in rural areas in Bangladesh, were discussed in the meeting. However, it is just the beginning, and there are no solid plans yet on how to execute it, but it should be seen as a good opportunity from Bangladesh’s perspective.

The vaccine nationalism has placed several countries, especially the developing and underdeveloped ones,in a dire situation, and Bangladesh is no exception. The world has been witnessing a growing divide between the Global North and Global South on the proper distribution of vaccines. It is indeed a matter of great regret that some nations are waiting and groaning for inoculation campaign when a few developed countries have control over most of the vaccines. The profit-seeking behaviour of vaccine manufacturing countries and companies and global politics regarding the same are the issues the world would least want to see during this unprecedented crisis. Many international experts believe that Western country’s monopoly on vaccine production is the reason behind Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines not getting World Health Organization’s approval yet.  

It was conceivable that the superpowers would be in fierce competition with each other over vaccine production since vaccine became a global hotspot of global diplomacy triggered by the competitive nature of the existing world order. On the other hand, for the Indian government, it seems a daunting task to vaccinate the 1.3 billion population, and it is too unfair to think that the country will be able to provide timely delivery of vaccines to other countries before meeting its internal demand. In addition, keeping the shortage of vaccines and the quick mutating nature of the virus in mind, it was injudicious for the Bangladesh government not to consider alternative sources. However, it is better late than never. Still, Bangladesh can prepare itself to face the impending danger by taking lessons from previous mistakes.

The country now needs to focus on a few important issues to tackle this grim pandemic. First of all, the government’s decision to not looking for alternative sources of vaccines was baffling. Meanwhile, to avoid a similar situation in future, the country should not put all its eggs in one basket this time. The government has recently given nod to both China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to mitigate the ongoing vaccine crisis- good riddance. Provided vaccines from both Russia and China are safe and effective, the government also needs to emphasize on developing local manufacturing capability at the earliest possible time. This is because there is no guarantee that Russia and China will keep supplying vaccines to Bangladesh in time. Therefore, local production could be a durable solution.

Secondly, Bangladesh may even go beyond China and Russia’s assistance to ensure timely vaccination for its most vulnerable people. One of the advisers to U.S. President Joe Biden has said that that they will share six crores Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines from its stockpiles with other countries, and India will get preference given the current condition of the country. Therefore, it is the right time for Bangladesh to ramp up diplomatic efforts to ensure that it also receives some vaccines from the U.S. 

Thirdly, next time when vaccines from a new brand arrive, the responsible authority must ensure that it keeps sufficient vials for those yet to receive their second dose before giving people the first dose. According to the experts, it would not be wise to inoculate people with different brands without any concrete study. Without confirming the second dose for those who took the first one, Bangladesh shouldn’t have allowed others to take the first shot. Now, if the required vaccines do not arrive early, there is a chance that a considerable number of people will have to take their second jab late.

Lastly, it’s time for the government to think seriously about coping with its oxygen shortage. There is no better example for Bangladesh now than India’s current situation, where the latter is grappling with an oxygen shortage. India used to provide 15-20 per cent of Bangladesh’s monthly requirement of around 5,400 tonnes of medical and industrial oxygen. Since India is halting supply, oxygen crunch may turn grave in the upcoming days. Health experts have warned that if the current situation deteriorates to something close to what India has been witnessing, the existing capacity may be overwhelmed to control the situation. Moreover, suppose the Indian ban on oxygen export continues for a long period. In that case, Bangladesh cannot help but seek assistance from countries such as Singapore for the required oxygen supply, which may increase the cost as well as time.

As we have witnessed India’s dire situation due to the second wave, it is also possible that due to a surge in cases, hospitals in Bangladesh may crumble similarly under the strain of new patients who would badly need uninterrupted oxygen supply. Therefore, besides imports, it is high time the government seek assistance from other countries to churn out more oxygen within the country before it experiences the grave consequences of the second wave. Along with vaccines, ensuring uninterrupted oxygen supply is no less important. The government needs proper planning to protect its citizens from the second and possibly the third wave in the upcoming days.

Sourav Ghosh is a researcher at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs and holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi. He has research interests in the Global Refugee crisis, Ethnic Conflict, and South Asian politics. The writer can be reached at souravghosh.mymail[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Bulldozing Dissent in India

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State brutality and hostility have emerged as the defining factors in BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party)  policy toward Indian Muslims. From mob lynching and punishment on beef consumption to imposing a ban on the ‘hijab’ in universities, BJP continues to find novel ways and means to target Muslim society and enforce the concept of Hindu supremacy in India. While deliberate marginalisation of Indian Muslims is not new and remains an important part of India’s policy towards its minorities, the intensity of this campaign is soaring with every passing day. 

Recently, two senior BJP members made disparaging remarks against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), brushing aside the sentiments of the state’s largest minority. The comments drew criticism from around the world, creating a diplomatic row for India.While PM Modi decided to remain silent on the issue, the concerned BJP members had to be suspended from the party given the intense backlash from several countries, especially the Gulf states.

On the other hand, the remarks also sparked a wave of anger in the Indian Muslim communities, who registered their grievances by holding protests on the streets in various parts of the state.  However, to deal with its own citizens, India resorted to using force and refused to let the Muslims protest peacefully, depriving them of their fundamental democratic rights. Amidst the demonstrations after Friday prayers, clashes between protesters and police broke out in several parts, the most notable one occurred in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Two teenagers lost their lives, and several were injured. The Indian police also arrested approximately 300 individuals taking part in the protests.  

The most concerning event that followed afterwards was bulldozing the houses of Muslim activists who were either present at the demonstrations or were apparently the organisers. The demolitions were justified on the pretext that they were illegal establishments. In reality, these criminal activities were done on the behest of the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, who is an ardent RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) follower – the most projected political figure in BJP (after Narendra Modi) and a torchbearer of Hindutva politics.  

It has been observed that the frequency of the use of bulldozers to demolish personal property is increasing in Muslim-majority areas in India. CM Adityanath himself is considered the pioneer and advocate of this ‘bulldozer strategy’, which is now frequently being executed throughout India by other BJP leaders. His ardency with the idea of demolishing Muslim houses can be sensed from the fact that bulldozers are displayed at BJP rallies to demonstrate them as a symbol of state power. Mrityunjay Kumar,  Adityanath’s media advisor later tweeted a photo of a bulldozer with the caption, ‘Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday,’ which conveys the government’s unapologetic stance on its actions and the intent to use such equipment without hesitation. 

Whats worse, the state machinery deliberately orchestrates the scenes of Muslim houses being turned to rubble to instil a fearful impact. Its purpose is to deter the Muslim communities from protesting against the ‘saffronized’ state. Such images are meant to signal that the state will not tolerate such kind of opposition in the BJP-led India and will not hesitate to exercise the use of force against such segments. The prime objective is to bulldoze their courage to stand against oppression in the future. 

Another way to look at this violence is the long-term dynamics of Indian politics. While it is apparent that Narendra Modi will contest the next Indian elections for BJP, it is fairly evident that an alternative leadership is preparing to succeed him in the future. The potential candidates are replicating his past machinations to strengthen their personal and political statures. Akin to Modi’s Gujarat massacre, his party members are recreating events that can bear similar impacts in order to emerge as radical leaders in accordance with BJP’s vision.  This includes intense and targeted verbal and physical attacks on Muslims. Hence, the use of force against Muslims will likely be a prominent factor for capitalising on the majoritarian Hindu vote bank.  

Lack of accountability, persistent silence of key leadership and the embedded political objectives are fanning dangerous flames in an already fraught environment for Muslims in India. The repressive attitude toward Indian Muslims has now been institutionalised at the state level and suggests that life will only worsen for them. India’s belligerent policy and confrontational actions will fuel further divisions in a society that has become extremely polarised along religious lines. Political interests are overshadowing national interests and the trend is likely to continue.

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This week’s deadly earthquake is a reminder of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

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Damage is seen in the Spera district, in Khost province after a devastating earthquake hit eastern Afghanistan in the early morning of 22 June 2022. © UNICEF Afghanistan

Afghanistan can’t catch a break. This week’s deadly earthquake is the latest chapter in a worsening humanitarian crisis. It has also shone a light on the shortcomings of the Taliban’s ability to deal with the myriad of problems in the poverty stricken country. This represents an opportunity for the international community to play a larger role in helping Afghanistan to recover and rebuild.

This comes as a magnitude six earthquake hit Afghanistan’s remote Paktika province on Wednesday. The Taliban have claimed that at least 1,000 people have died, with over 1,500 injured. The number of casualties is expected to rise over the coming days. The remoteness of the province and heavy rain has hampered rescue efforts in what is the deadliest earthquake in two decades.

For Afghans this is the latest in a line of tragic events that are causing untold suffering. Since the Taliban takeover in August last year, Afghanistan has endured a worsening humanitarian crisis. Decades of conflict, natural disasters, poverty, drought and the coronavirus pandemic have meant that most Afghans are now facing a rapidly deteriorating situation under the Taliban.

The United Nations Development Program has stated that Afghanistan is facing ‘universal poverty’, with 97 per cent of Afghans living below the international poverty line. Acute malnutrition has risen dramatically across the country, with 95 per cent of Afghans now experiencing food insecurity. Well over 80 per cent of families are facing high unemployment, creating a situation where they cannot feed their children and where those children are either sold for money to buy food or forced to work or beg for pitiful sums. The healthcare system has also collapsed, with doctors and nurses not being paid and with medicine in short supply.

The Taliban rightly deserves criticism for this situation through poor governance and the mismanagement of what government funds are available. It has become quickly apparent that the Taliban are incapable of dealing with either the humanitarian crisis or effectively responding to the earthquake in Paktika. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah has pleaded with the international community to “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort”.

The situation in Afghanistan also raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the international community in causing the current crisis. The country has long been heavily reliant on foreign aid, and this was no different under the NATO-led occupation. The chaotic withdrawal of both international forces and humanitarian aid agencies resulted in much needed funds leaving with them.

Additionally, the implementation of harsh sanctions and the freezing of remaining Afghan assets by the United States has effectively hamstrung the Taliban’s ability to help those most affected by the crisis and to respond to disasters such as the recent earthquake. For these reasons, the Taliban’s claim that international sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets is acting as a collective punishment on all Afghans has some merit.

In a positive development, the United Nations and aid agencies are on the ground providing support to those affected by the earthquake and have been undertaking operations to tackle the humanitarian crisis for some time.  This includes providing tonnes of medical supplies and teams of medical professionals, and the roll out of food and tents for starving and displaced Afghans.

But more needs to be done. The international community, particularly countries who withdrew from Afghanistan last year, can provide much needed equipment and supplies so recovery operations can continue in Paktika. If these country’s still do not wish to recognise the Taliban, then these funds can be provided to UN aid agencies at ground-level.

Furthermore, the international community needs to play a larger role in alleviating the humanitarian crisis. This can be achieved by unfreezing frozen government assets, which belongs to Afghans, so development projects can continue, and civil servants, teachers and healthcare workers can be paid.

Through this funding, the international community can attempt to leverage the Taliban to adequately fund the education, financial and health sectors so people are paid and so these sectors can strengthen to reliably assist those in need. This leverage can also convince the Taliban to allow women to re-enter the workforce and participate in social life, something that will go a long way to ensuring that families earn enough to feed themselves.

The recent earthquake has highlighted the dire humanitarian and economic situation Afghanistan is in and it is up to both the Taliban and the international community to fix it.

While the international community doesn’t have to recognise the Taliban, it is equally responsible in ensuring that the crisis ends so innocent Afghans can rebuild their lives with dignity.

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South Asia

Pakistan: World Refugee Day

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photo: UNIC Mexico/ Luis Arroyo

World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the United Nations to honor refugees around the globe. It falls each year on June 20 and celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. World Refugee Day is an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and to recognize their resilience in rebuilding their lives.

Taking refuge is an old phenomenon, and even during WWI and WWII, the refugee crisis became very serious. In the last few decades, the geopolitics has deteriorated, and once again the people were forced to take refuge in the safer part of the world. Unfortunately, the Muslim world was the victim and most of the refugees were Muslims. However, the Ukraine war is the first-ever war in Europe after several decades, and the refugee crisis in Europe seems a new one. There are around 6 million Ukrainian refugees, and there are 44 European countries, or 27 EU member countries, sharing this burden collectively. Whereas, Pakistan hosted up to 5 million (at peak) Afghan refugees alone.

Pakistan joins the international community in commemorating World Refugee Day. While observing this Day, we express our solidarity with refugees all around the world. This Day behaves us to reflect on the drivers of forced displacements and to reaffirm our commitment to finding sustainable solutions for refugee situations, including through conflict prevention and resolution. This Day is also an occasion to reiterate our collective resolve for refugee protection under the principle of international burden- and responsibility-sharing.

Pakistan has shouldered the responsibility of one of the largest and most protracted refugee situations in the world for over four decades. Pakistan continues to host more than 3 million Afghans. Another 0.4 million Rohingyas have also found refuge in Pakistan. There are refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and etc. The people of Pakistan have demonstrated exemplary generosity, hospitality, and compassion towards the refugees in the country, showcased in Pakistan’s inclusive policies on health, education, and livelihoods, including during the COVID-19 response.

As new situations emerge around the globe, the long-standing Afghan refugee situation must not be forgotten by the international community. There is a need for renewed international commitment, especially in the context of COVID-compounded socio-economic and health challenges, through regular, predictable, and adequate financing for Afghan refugees including their safe and dignified return. It is equally important to undertake necessary measures for the stability and sustainable socio-economic development of Afghanistan, in order to avert the possibility of any future refugee exodus from the country.

On this Day, Pakistan pays special tribute to UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – for its commendable work in support of refugees and host communities throughout the world. Pakistan looks forward to further strengthening its valuable partnership with UNHCR. We call on the international community to support the Organization in its efforts toward durable solutions for refugees worldwide.

Genetically, Pakistan is an open-minded society and due to its own diversity, can accommodate all races, cultures, and religions, and can be integrated with others conveniently. Pakistan has been hosting refugees from various parts of the world and has integrated them perfectly. Pakistan hosts the world’s second-largest number of refugees in its territory. However, the economic burden is beyond Pakistan’s capacity, the international community is urged to generously extend a helping hand in sharing the burdens with Pakistan. Instability in the region imposed wars, and natural disasters are growing in this part of the world, which may cause more unrest in the neighboring countries and force more people to take refuge in Pakistan. Europe and America have strict policies, but, Pakistan is still a more flexible and convenient destination for international refugees. The constitution of Pakistan is more friendly and accommodative. The visa regime and border controls are also rather flexible and friendly.

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