India to the Rescue! Decoding Hope, Humanity, and Health through Vaccine Diplomacy

“The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.”

William Shakespeare

As India draws praise for its most noble foreign policy measure in recent times–Vaccine Diplomacy, the aforementioned quote from William Shakespeare’s iconic play Measures for Measures reminds of an apt analogy, where India’s humanity meets hope. Through vaccine diplomacy, India has helped countries around the world by providing hope, through trust, and, of course, life-saving medicines in the form of vaccines. Importantly, from a foreign policy perspective, India’s Vaccine-Maitri initiative was a great strategic exercise that showcased its humanitarian capacities to the rest of the world. 

Vaccine Maitri: India’s Extra Mile Effort

By 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had wreaked havoc throughout the world. Misery in the form of a deadly virus destroyed lives, sunk the economy, and plagued the globe with unprecedented socio-political ramifications. Thanks to science, vaccines became a breakthrough to save lives and counter the pandemic. But accessibility to vaccines was still a problem, especially amongst low-income and developing countries, where the pandemic had impacted the most. 

Being the “World’s Pharmacy”, India made a difference. India swiftly brought hope to these countries in the mode of life-saving vaccines and drugs and launched its marquee international goodwill initiative recorded in recent history- Vaccine Maitri. Under the leadership of the Ministry of External Affairs, India sent vaccines to countries, particularly low-income states, across the globe. They were supplied either as part of government grants, commercial arrangements, or through the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVAX programme. 

India’s neighbours namely, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, were the first beneficiaries of India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative and received almost half of the total vaccines supplied by India abroad. Gradually, Indian-made vaccines were making a mark across the globe, and by April 2021, India had sent over 65 million vaccines to around 76 countries spanning from Latin America to the Pacific. 

However, as the second wave of the pandemic approached, it proved to be a spoilsport for vaccine diplomacy. The second wave crippled India’s healthcare resources and infrastructure, and noticing the prevailing circumstances, the government temporarily halted foreign vaccine supplies. Since then, the outbreak has significantly receded and India is sincerely hoping to restart its vaccine diplomacy soon, probably better and larger than before. 

Delhi’s Leverage: Soft Power & Marketing

When India adopted its Vaccine Diplomacy as early as January 2021, it was one of the first countries to do so. Like any other politically aspiring nation, India intended to connect with countries, particularly those in the global south, through its humanitarian outreach. Still, on a larger note, India’s benefits from its Vaccine Maitri initiative can be dissected based on strategic and economic aspects. 

On the strategic front, India’s vaccine diplomacy is a key driver of soft power. Soft power, in contrast to hard power, shapes political preferences through appeal/attraction, primarily based on a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policies. As a country that has been idealizing principles such as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (“the world is one family”) for ages, India’s vaccine diplomacy rightly fits into the equation for accomplishing soft power derivatives. It provides momentum for India to garner positive political perception and capitalising the same to realise its strategic goals, particularly to counter countries like China.

Coming to the economic factor, India’s vaccine diplomacy unravelled a global market for its locally-made vaccines. Statistics clearly suggest that as much as 35 million vaccines shipped from India were via commercial arrangements. The Vaccine Maitri programme proved beneficial for India’s pharmaceutical companies such as the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech to expand their global footprint. Reports even indicate that both SII and Bharat Biotech are looking to expand their operations abroad. In this regard, India’s vaccine diplomacy needs to be commended as it facilitated and provided a platform for such companies to rise to the occasion. 

Looming Challenges: Elephant in the Room

While discussing the positives and the benefits that India may reap from its vaccine diplomacy, it is hard to rule out the impending challenges that may prove detrimental to the efficient implementation of the initiative. India’s vaccine diplomacy presently faces a multitude of challenges. For starters, restrictions imposed by foreign countries on the export of raw materials required for vaccines is still a major problem that not only impedes India’s production of vaccines; but also makes its vaccine diplomacy in jitters. 

Foreign recognition of Indian vaccines is another critical challenge. Only SII’s Covishield vaccine is recognised in most countries as it is the variant of the British-made Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine which was instantly approved by the WHO earlier. On the other hand, India’s indigenous vaccine, Covaxin is yet to receive the approval of the WHO and is only recognised in 10 countries. This directly impacts the Vaccine Maitri initiative as countries would prefer receiving vaccines that are globally recognised and approved for avoiding possible travel restrictions. 

In addition, India’s vaccine diplomacy faces a serious issue vis-à-vis the current Intellectual Property regime as it bats for temporary patent waivers of vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). India’s call is a reflection of its diplomatic efforts because it is congruent with the ideals of the Vaccine Maitri initiative– to globally enhance accessibility and affordability of quality Covid-19 vaccines. And, a patent waiver is a good place to begin. However, without consensus, the proposal remains a far-fetched dream, one that is blockaded by searing interests of developed countries, who have traditionally advocated for additional IP protections beyond the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). 

Road Ahead

Seeing the challenges, there is still a lot at stake for India to prosper in its vaccine diplomacy as well as its agenda to highlight the humanitarian perspectives of its campaign. Plus, having vaccinated over 1 billion people in record time, India needs to carry on this motivation for achieving its international endeavours. The road ahead may seem bumpy for a while; but there is, after all, hope, and recent developments suggest the same. Whether it is garnering support for its proposal at the WTO, deliberating with the WHO for recognizing Covaxin, or mooting for introducing mutual agreements with countries for recognizing vaccines, India is working hard to overcome key challenges. 

Moreover, with the recent summits of QUAD and G20 prioritizing vaccine supply and distribution, India’s global role is set to take a dynamic turn. Given India’s proven tenacity in the pharmaceutical industry, there is no doubt that it could reach greater heights as a leading vaccine supplier in the world. India should also remember that even if its vaccine diplomacy may not be as colossal compared to China, still, based on the circumstances, it is moving mountains for creating a difference. As food for thought, India needs to keep in mind that its efforts potentially transform into strategic derivatives, otherwise the labour goes in vain. Hopefully, India’s extra mile efforts bear fruits and produce results that could support its future in global health diplomacy. 

This article is written by K.A. Dhananjay