Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy: Bangladesh’s perspective

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
Sourav Ghosh
Sourav Ghosh is working as a researcher at the Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP) 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]