Author : Harsh V. Pant

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 13, 2020
India’s public health diplomacy in the time of COVID19

Even as India grapples with massive losses in lives and livelihoods because of COVID-19, its global outreach has continued to be proactive and substantive. As soon as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 contagion as a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March 2020, New Delhi lost no time in organising  a video conference with the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to coordinate regional preparations to deal with the impending disaster. India offered US$10 million for a voluntary Emergency Fund to be used by the SAARC nations in case of a scarcity of essentials; in total, the member states raised US$26.1 million for the fund. Thereafter, New Delhi maintained this momentum of promoting international policy coordination and engagement by participating in a variety of virtual meetings: one with the Indo-Pacific countries on 20 March; another one with member states of the G-20 on 26 March; and later in April, interactions with foreign ministers of BRICS nations.

One particular area of India’s global imprint in this time of COVID-19 is its medical diplomacy. Indeed, India enjoys a high profile as a provider of pharmaceutical and other medical commodities that are critical in the global battle against the pandemic. Within SAARC alone, as of 3 June, India has supplied aid worth INR 15.7 Cr: this is in the form of medical aid (INR 11.71 Cr); Information Exchange Programme (INR 0.41 Cr); and food supplies to the Maldives (INR 3.58 Cr).

Beyond its immediate neighbours, India has also provided extensive aid to other nations worth some INR 32 Cr (which includes transport costs of INR 9.7 Cr)—this comprises 72 percent of its committed aid as of 3 June. Furthermore, Procurement Orders of approximately INR 60 Cr have been issued to supply aid in the form of drugs, testing kits and other medical assistance to Myanmar, Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) states, and 12 countries in the African continent.

The drugs being supplied as aid by India to other countries are primarily Paracetamol (PCM) tablets and the much talked about COVID-19 prophylaxis, Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) tablets. India has already supplied PCM tablets to 10 of the 30 countries it has made a commitment to, and aims to provide a total of 3.18 million tablets worth an estimated INR 0.3 Cr. While experts are still deliberating whether HCQ indeed works, it currently stands as the closest preventive drug for the infectious disease. India’s help in this regard is therefore crucial.

More pertinently, the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) estimates that India has the capacity to produce around 40 tonnes of HCQ per month, which is around 70 percent of the world’s total supply. Already, India has supplied 2.945 million HCQ tablets worth INR 1.031 Cr to 24 countries through grants. A further five million HCQ tablets worth INR 1.75 Cr have been approved for 28 LAC states, and another 1.9 million HCQ tablets valued at INR 0.665 Cr for 19 African states. In total, India is committed to provide some 10 million HCQ tablets to 76 countries across the globe.

Further, India has been providing technical assistance in the form of dispatching Rapid Response Teams to countries like Kuwait and the Maldives, and has set up platforms to exchange information. India has also organised e-ITEC training programmes for healthcare professionals under the aegis of the country’s reputed medical colleges like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi and the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGI) in Chandigarh.

As of 3 June, the cumulative amount of COVID-19-related aid that India is looking to extend is in the range of INR 110-120 Cr (inclusive of transport costs) across over 90 countries. The data shows that India has been steadfast in providing unconditional humanitarian assistance to many countries across the world, quietly and without the accompanying fanfare. These recipients include countries like China (worth INR 6.1 Cr) and Nepal (INR 4.07 Cr), with which India’s ties have been strained in recent weeks.

Indeed, India’s response to other countries’ needs amidst the pandemic becomes even more noteworthy when compared to that of countries like China, for example, whose COVID-19 aid diplomacy is being discussed extensively. To begin with, China has received heavy criticisms for its delayed response to the outbreak, plausibly allowing the contagion to spread rapidly well beyond its borders. To counter the international censure, Beijing adopted a new strategy, referred to by analysts as ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, in which it is using all means necessary to control the international narrative about the pandemic, its roots and its future. It is this motive that has driven Beijing’s COVID-19-related aid.

It takes every opportunity to publicise its assistance to countries like Cambodia, SerbiaFrance and Italy, amongst others. At the same time, however, there are reports of defective testing kits having been supplied to countries like the Netherlands and India. More pertinently, China’s aid campaign appears to be capitalising on the global health crisis, as it seeks to revive its ‘Health Silk Road’ (HSR) project that was initially an auxiliary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China, through its aid is seizing the opportunity and portraying itself as a responsible leader in public health governance. It is possibly even offering its HSR model as an alternative to the ailing WHO. Worryingly, the HSR model, based on the BRI framework, replaces the WHO’s traditional multilateral structure with that of a ‘hub and spoke’ structure, with China at the centre.

Some might argue that India is punching above its weight with its interventions in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet, notwithstanding the weaknesses in India’s largely inherited colonial structures, and its scarcity of resources as a developing nation, it has championed international engagement and provided vital aid on a multinational scale at a time when global-isolationist forces have been at their most powerful. India has looked beyond its self-interests at a time when most states had either begun checking their exports to limit the outflow of essential commodities or started manoeuvring to profit from the pandemic. Despite itself facing natural calamities like cyclones and locust swarms, coupled with the unabated spiking of COVID-19 cases across the country, India is underlining its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder, delivering results when they are most needed.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

Read More +