Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 27, 2020
COVID19 pandemic offers India and the US an opportunity to build a positive-sum consensus
US-India cooperation against COVID19

Earlier this year, US-India ties were in the spotlight as US President Donald Trump made his maiden visit to India. Two months on, the US and India are now in the eye of the COVID19 storm. With over 750,000 active cases, the US has now surpassed Spain, Italy and even China as the most affected country. Whereas, India remains under a nation-wide lockdown as the initial 21-day lockdown was recently extended until May 03. Even amidst the COVID19 pandemic however, the US-India bilateral dynamic is thriving and possibly pivoting towards a relatively more positive-sum consensus -- away from recent years’ bout of stalemates and transactionalism. 

Medical diplomacy in the spotlight 

India’s global engagement in these times has encompassed what is being termed as "medical diplomacy". Apart from dispatching teams of Indian military doctors to foreign countries and organising online training for healthcare professionals on COVID19 management, the same includes India’s support in terms of dispatching the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ).

Given the centrality of combating malaria in its national health programs, India is one of the largest producers of HCQ. Although there has been no large-scale clinical trial over HCQ’s efficacy against COVID19, there has been some “anecdotal” evidence about the drug’s effectiveness against the novel coronavirus. Moreover, global demand for HCQ spiked after US President Trump continually touted the drug to be a “game changer” when used in combination with the common antibiotic azithromycin against COVID19.

Although India is often dubbed as the “pharmacy of the world” and its pharmaceutical industry is the world’s third-largest, the Narendra Modi government briefly banned the export of HCQ owing to an expected dip in Chinese export of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) and a rise in global demand for HCQ. For instance, in March alone, after having received “five times as many orders as usual”, New Jersey-based Rising Pharmaceuticals announced that it is “ramping up production in India to meet demand, purchasing “extraordinary amounts” of more active ingredients, bottles and labels.” India’s Ipca Laboratories and Zydus Cadila also received large orders for HCQ for the US market.

Although the announced ban didn’t apply to orders received before 25 March, India eventually lifted the ban to partially allow exports, clear all placed orders and put HCQ under “a licensed category” in order to continuously monitor its demand. Since then, India has exported HCQ to about 24 countries and donated the drug to another 31 countries. And for the US, India cleared the export of 35.82 lakh tablets of HCQ along with 9 metric tons of APIs. After a brief hullabaloo over Trump seeming to threaten India with “retaliation” for its HCQ export ban, the US and India have now joined hands to engage in this “medical diplomacy”. In possibly being a sign of things to come, this month, India sent a portion of its essential medicine consignments bound for donee nations aboard an American charter flight scheduled by the US diplomatic mission in New Delhi. 

US & India Inc. step up 

US-India cooperation is not merely limited to India’s support for US demand for HCQ. Respective business communities are also stepping up efforts to help either nations’ fight against the COVID19 pandemic. Uber has partnered with Flipkart and Big Basket to ensure delivery of essential items amidst the nation-wide lockdown in India. Pfizer in India has donated over 40,000 N95 masks. PepsiCo India has committed to provide 25,000 COVID-19 testing kits and over 5 million meals to families impacted by COVID19. GSK Pharma has announced that it would provide 40,000 augementin duo, 3000 Augmentin IV 300mg, 3500 PPE kits, and 2 proton plus critical care ventilators. Gilead Sciences has announced the donation of 1.5 million doses of Remdesiir -- a COVID19 investigational drug.

Further, at a time when the Trump administration has been rerouting US industry-produced personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to the US, the American multinational conglomerate 3M has increased production of “respirators, surgical masks and hand sanitisers in the range of 35 percent to 40 percent and almost exclusively directing supplies” to Indian nodal agencies.

This effort is reciprocated from Indian companies as well. Most notably, it was reported that the North American division of the Maharashtra-based multinational pharmaceutical company, Lupin has donated 10,000 N95 masks to hospitals and nursing homes. TATA Consultancy Services (TCS) which constitutes 15 percent of India’s software exports of about US$ 147 billion -- largely owing to a substantial presence in North America, is offering “STEM education programs online and free access for all students and teachers”. In addition, Gurugram-based multinational hospitality company, OYO announced free accommodations at any OYO hotel in the US for medical professionals.

In Michigan -- the home of the US automotive industry, the trajectory of coronavirus cases has at times been steeper than that of New York. Amidst pressures to restart the local automotive industry to avoid an economic catastrophe, Mahindra has repurposed its Auburn Hills manufacturing facility. It is now producing “an aspiration box with innovative ease-of-use design; face shields and masks for local healthcare workers and first-responders.” The Indian automotive giant has also committed to potentially produce parts that go into ventilators. In the meantime, they also are “providing meals to healthcare workers and first responders via Mahindra food trucks”.

Emergence of a new US-India consensus? 

Amidst the pandemic, there have been calls for India and the US to address the erosion of democracies’ allure. In contrast to China’s state-driven market economics model, democracies in recent times have witnessed polarisation and slow decision-making. Jagdish Bhagwati’s idea of the “cruel dilemma” on democracy and development having an incompatible relationship, comes to mind. But fight against COVID19 presents mixed evidence.

Upsides of the ‘China model’ was clear in its swift construction of medical facilities, but its lack of transparency led the disease to become a global pandemic. Similarly, democracies’ partisan divides have impeded action, like with the ongoing tussle in the US over federal v/s state responsibilities. But democracies like South Korea have successfully proven otherwise.

Thus, focused efforts by India and the US -- the world’s largest and oldest democracies, will hold relevance in the fight for the democratic model. Moreover, their actions can hold some gains for the bilateral dynamic as well. For instance, US-India pharma cooperation has been robust and collaborative research under it has been a testament to US-India “intellectual supply-chain” -- as the former US Consul General in Hyderabad, Katherine Hadda called it in a recent interview with ORF. But now, the urgency associated with the joint-development of a COVID19 vaccine could pave way for the resolution of “thorny intellectual property and regulatory issues that have vexed” US-India scientific cooperation.

This would offer a timely gain of alternate convergences, at a point when the bilateral dynamic has been marred with continued stalemates and transactionalism. Although defence trade has been thriving, one cannot escape the fact that the Trump administration’s impetus to the same stems from its ‘Buy American’ policy to increase US arms exports abroad. Whereas, India often hails purchase orders to soothe American trade negotiators’ apprehensions over the US-India bilateral trade imbalance. Moreover, even as other big-ticket items like a trade deal stand impeded by long-standing issues over market-access and nascent divergences like that on data localisation, the bilateral dynamic depends on alternate convergences now more than ever.

Hence, the COVID19 pandemic with its push to US-India pharma links and respective business communities investing in either nation’s local well-being, could present the US and India an opportunity to explore a positive-sum consensus.

Dhriti Kamdar is an intern at ORF Mumbai

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Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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