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How India could profit from health diplomacy

Consequently, as seen India had consistently topped the Balvtanik School of Government’s Government Response Stringency Index against Covid-19.

Chetan Singai and Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy | New Delhi |

As the current world order shaped by military and economic might continues to be distorted by the Covid-19 outbreak, health has become the most discussed issue of global politics. Consequently, a post-pandemic world will witness a surge in health diplomacy, especially amongst the Global South as it continues to bear the brunt with inadequate health infrastructure, economic strangulation and exorbitant financial packages. Health diplomacy is the diplomacy to manage major health challenges that affect the population.

This diplomacy can be in the form of prevention, detection or responding to health issues. This diplomacy does not only bring mutual benefits and connect societies but also provides a platform for soft power, international and moral leverage to the cooperating countries. However, with the surge in health diplomacy due to Covid-19 pandemic, India has emerged as one of the prominent nation-states in the Global South arguably, for the following reasons: Over the years, India has exhibited itself as a moral and valuable actor in the Global South.

Historically, India’s foreign policies were based on Nehru’s vision of non-alignment (NAM) and South-South cooperation that challenged the West’s unequal, exploitative and non-cooperative world order. This was accompanied by India’s economic boom of the 1990s that facilitated India’s rich relationship and leadership with the NAM, SAARC, BIMSTEC, IORA, BRICS, IBSA, ASEAN, African Union and the Commonwealth countries, leaving India to enjoy an unparalleled relationship and influence over the Global South.

In addition to its influence, India has successfully built strong narratives of being a responsible and benevolent actor. Regardless of the ruling party, Indian Prime Ministers have furthered humanity and development efforts through their foreign policies, such as consistent encouragement to produce and supply affordable medicines to the world. It has also taken a lead in tackling crisis situations as seen with its leadership against Covid-19 in the recent SAARC, G-20 and NAM conferences and its decision to provide essential drugs, expert teams and HCQ to several developing countries.

These actions substantiate narratives of India being a responsible and benevolent leader of the global south and will legitimise its proactive health diplomacy. Similarly, in recent years India has emerged as a hub for scientific development and diplomacy. Its efforts in science and technology (S&T) have doubled in the previous years, currently having agreements and collaborations with over 83 countries. This is supplemented by the Science, Technology and Innovation policy of 2013, which has guided crossborder cooperation between the issues concerning science and technology.

In addition to this, through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme and bilateral cooperation, India has cooperated and invested in several scientific and health issues of developing countries. India has also led the world concerning S&T issues through the International Solar Alliance, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and Global Innovation and Technology Alliance etc. Finally, India is also an elected non-permanent member of the UNSC and chair of the World Health Organisation Executive board.

Through these platforms, India can make serious attempts in enhancing non-traditional security issues and address health challenges, through institutional and bilateral diplomacy, which can directly supplement its health diplomacy efforts. However, to enhance health diplomacy, India has to undertake specific reforms in its foreign policy. First and foremost, India has to differentiate its health diplomacy from its wider S&T diplomatic initiatives.

Currently, India adapts three tactics of S&T diplomacy: technology synergy (mutual bilateral funding and innovation), technology diplomacy (promote S&T base and capacity building for developing and neighbouring countries) and technology development (foster innovation and techno-entrepreneurship with PPP model). Thus, the distinction of health diplomacy and applying the same strategies will provide sufficient material, focus and scope for its development. India should also encourage and include domain experts in its foreign policy.

It should invest and create scope for areas of national interests related to health so that experts are actively engaged in advising the government regarding key challenges and solutions in drafting and implementing the foreign policy. The government can also promote the scientific community by facilitating cooperation, material support, infrastructure, collaboration and agreements with other countries and researchers.

Further, the development of science and research at home and key research centres like IISER, IISc, ICMR, etc. can attract governments and experts from other countries, enhancing health cooperation, mutual benefits and profits. In addition to its internal behaviour, India should also build narratives and identities of a responsible and humanitarian state. It should often voice out concerns regarding health issues in the Global South and developing countries. It should commit itself to provide material reliefs, grants, funds and drugs to countries affected by natural or man-made health catastrophes, as seen during Covid-19 to strengthen its health diplomacy.

It should also conduct regular bilateral or multilateral summits with the countries of Global South, to enhance cooperation, trade and agreements concerning specific health issues. Finally, India should conduct regular workshops, joint drills and courses for the countries of Global South concerning management and governance of such pandemics or disasters. Despite low expenditure over health, India has shown its efficiency in preventing and minimising health catastrophes through its administration. Indian administration has been efficient to minimise the impacts of diseases, by spreading awareness, containing, tracking, immunising and vaccinating the public.

This has minimised the impacts of diseases such as Cholera, Plague, HIV, TB, Polio, Smallpox, Nipah, H1N1 and the recent Covid-19 outbreak. Consequently, as seen India had consistently topped the Balvtanik School of Government’s Government Response Stringency Index against Covid-19. Besides, India’s bureaucracy has been effective in preventing disease outbreaks as seen with its management of Swachh Bharat mission and Polio programmes. Such efficiency and success are lessons for most of the countries in the Global South, exposed to similar challenges related to limited innovation and financial outlay for public health.

(The writers are, respectively, Associate Professor, Ramaiah College of Law, Bengaluru and a post-graduate of the London School of Economics who comments on foreign policy issues)