The US has lifted restrictions on export of raw material for vaccine production in India. In addition, it is providing other essential medical stores. Restrictions were imposed by President Joe Biden recently. A spokesperson defended the action by stating, “We have a special responsibility to the American people.” A few days earlier, Serum Institute of India CEO, Adar Poonawalla, had requested Mr. Biden to lift the ban on export of raw materials.
He tweeted, “if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the US.” Within the US too, pressure mounted on the government to lift restrictions and support India in its crisis as India had done when the US faced the first wave.
Press inputs state that President Biden took this decision as the major American vaccine manufacturer, Pfizer, was compelled to cut short its vaccine production targets by 50 per cent, citing a raw material crunch. Currently, the US is hoarding surplus vaccines, claimed to be up to 70 million, which is contrary to humanitarian norms, but not unusual for the US.
On India stopping export of vaccines to other countries due to its own rising cases in the second wave, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel stated, “We now have a situation with India where, in connection with the emergency situation of the pandemic, we are worried whether the pharmaceutical products will still come to us.” She added, “Of course, we have only allowed India to become such a large pharmaceutical producer in the first place, in the expectation that this should be complied with. If this is not the case now, we will have to rethink.”
As the third wave hit Europe in late March, the EU itself stopped export of vaccines to other countries, including UK, with whom it had an agreement. It also reneged on its global commitments. John Nkengasong, the director of the African Centre for Disease Control, cautioned India against blocking vaccine exports to Africa. He stated, “If you finish vaccinating your people before Africa or other parts of the world, you have not done yourself any justice because variants will emerge and undermine your own vaccination efforts.”
Prior to the second wave hitting India, the government had exported over 66.2 million doses to more than 95 countries. Currently India is not fulfilling even its paid commitments for vaccines including to close allies Bangladesh and UK. Nations placing their own population first, ignoring neighbours, allies and alliances, is not a new phenomenon. Economically strong nations overstocked even basic essentials even during the first wave of the virus last year, while the economically weaker nations suffered.
At the height of the first wave in April 2020, the US was accused of purchasing a consignment of masks about to be transported to France on a tarmac in China, by paying three times the amount. The buyer and seller were complicit. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau directed his government to ensure that there was far more protective gear available than necessary. Brazil claimed its supplies were taken away by others, by paying more than it could afford.
Turkey banned export of protective gear and reneged on delivery for equipment for which payments had been made, even to NATO allies. EU nations blocked movement of medical stores within themselves, breaking the very reason of creating the EU, implying collaboration and open movement. When President Trump announced Hydroxychloroquine could treat Covid, India banned its exports and dispatched only where the government decided.
Israel’s Mossad was accused of launching clandestine operations to procure large quantity of Covid testing kits. Germany accused US of attempting to bribe its medical research companies on vaccines under development. Cyber-attacks on vaccine research were reported globally. China was accused of stashing supplies to gain financially. A crisis impacting the global population compels nations to look inwards and ensure safety and wellbeing of their own people, rather than being global benefactors.
Neither the US nor Europe have donated vaccines to economically weaker nations, which cannot afford to procure them, solely due to selfish reasons. They donated funds to the UN led global vaccine initiative, COVAX instead. The global initiative suffers as manufacturers like India handle domestic demands on priority.
Shortfall of vaccines in Canada compelled Trudeau to eat humble pie and request PM Modi. The case of China selling gifted items to nations in need, demanding contribution for its research for vaccine development, as a prerequisite for vaccine supplies, as also forcing nations to purchase Sinovac, is well known. India, despite being the producer of 60 per cent of global vaccines, is compelled to import vaccines due to high demand. Indian support to the world during the first wave was well appreciated.
In response, the world is now supporting India. Many argued on this approach, but it is being proved correct. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar defended India’s Vaccine Maitri by stating ‘international cooperation is not a one-way street.’ He backed the current decision of stopping vaccine exports by stating,
“As things got tough, we spoke to the world and said – we tried our best to live up to commitments but please understand that we have a serious situation at home and most countries understand that.” However, many nations did not understand, especially when they were directly impacted. Angela Merkel and others, whose supplies were affected, commented adversely and accused India. US decisions to initially block raw materials and hoard vaccines is condemnable under humanitarian conditions and displays selfishness.
Simultaneously, India is being accused of not fulfilling its export commitments, including from nations from whom payments have been taken. There are also countries who have given first doses of vaccines sent from India and are currently facing a crisis for their second dose, as India stopped exports. Every nation will secure its own populace first, prior to catering for the global community.
Nations only provide support to others once they are well-stocked, and their population is secure. In the bargain, economically weaker nations suffer. In summary, selfishness, better described as ‘My nation first’, is a global mantra and must be accepted.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)