India’s Medicine Diplomacy
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

“Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” (World is one family) has been a key ingredient of India’s outreach to the world from time immemorial. It has also acquired a greater salience in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. The whole world is suffering and is frankly in the guessing game as to how to contend with this unprecedented expanse of a virus that has taken the toll of the human patience and perseverance. It has also challenged the hypothesis that the Government is for the people as most countries have failed to provide the requisite healthcare for their people. This has been, especially true for the rich and advanced western nations who have failed miserably and in the process lost their natural leadership position. There is no drawing line as Brazil is hell-bent on beating the Americans and occupies the Corona infested numero uno position. A small country like Qatar has excelled in having the highest number of cases per 100000 even though rate of casualties is one of the lowest.

India has its own problems even if it had taken early measures to counter the pandemic. Several countries would like to follow how Vietnam or Thailand contained it. China, the second biggest economy hoping to displace the US and arguably the origin of the virus, disappointed the world by its clandestine, counterproductive and cataclysmic approaches from the very beginning of the Covid -19 crisis that resulted into the spread of the pandemic. Having been the source of SARS and other viruses it presumed that the advent of Corona, engineered on not, could be kept under the carpet. Even World Health Organisation (WHO) became a casualty in this ‘hide and seek’ game. US, beset by its domestic failures, decided to take on China bashing. Whether such punches will alleviate the situation at home or even help the cause of Trump’s upcoming election is anybody’s guess.

On the other hand India extended the biggest humanitarian outreach especially at a time when it had to cater to its 1.3 billion people facing the Corona pandemic. India sent medicine supplies like Paracetamol and HydroxyChloroquine to over 120 countries including the US and several other western countries. In fact India had to take stock of the availability at home and hence regulated the export of some medicines. And just then President Trump, in a fit, reacted that if India did not lift the ban it may face retaliation. It did not come to that. Not only did India, in keeping with her Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam tenets , supply the medicine but won the praise from the US which later reciprocated by sending 2000 ventilators . They also promised to share the vaccine with India first whenever it becomes available.

Brazilian President Bolsonaro in a letter to PM Modi even recalled the Ramayana episode calling Indian assistance, the lifesaving “Sanjeevani Booti” .. “Just as Lord Hanuman brought the holy medicine from the Himalayas to save the life of Lord Rama’s brother Lakshmana, and Jesus healed those who were sick and restored the sight to Bartimeu, India and Brazil will overcome this global crisis by joining forces and sharing blessings for the sake of all peoples”. Even dear friend PM Netanyahu conveyed Israeli gratitude by tweeting “Thank you, my dear friend @narendramodi, Prime Minister of India, for sending Chloroquine to Israel. All the citizens of Israel thank you!” PM Modi reiterated that India is ready to do whatever possible to help its friends.

There are over 9 million Indians in West Asia and many of them fell victim to the vagaries of Covid 19 and declining oil revenue impact and lost their jobs and became stranded. India launched the largest repatriation of her citizens in history the “Vande Bharat Mission” which is still going on. India has a very special and strategic partnership with the region especially with GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries and at the request of Kuwait it sent a Rapid Response Team of doctors and large number of nurses and paramedics to UAE. India rose to the occasion. PM Modi spoke to most of the Heads of States and Governments in the region and offered all possible assistance to counter the adverse impact of Covid.

India organised a successful Virtual Summit of SAARC leaders to effectively and jointly deal with the virus and supported establishment of a Covid Fund where it contributed $10 mn. PM Modi spoke to Crown Prince Salman to organise the virtual G20 Summit with a clear focus on international solidarity and collaboration to fight the virus as well as to revive the global economies among other challenges. Later India also attended the British initiative GAVI -an “International Vaccine Alliance” and contributed $ 15 mn to it. It is also involved in several other initiatives and research for the development of a vaccine and trials at the earliest.

Although WHO has been under fire for its alleged collusion with China , India has supported it and its reforms to rise to the exceptional challenges unlike the US that has decided to withdraw from it and stopped funding . This would be counterproductive to ensuring the global commons at a time when the world is facing an unprecedented crisis. India was one of the ten nations to join the executive board of the World Health Organisation for a period of three years. The other new members include Botswana, Colombia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Oman, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom. India is also currently the Chair of the Executive Board and had supported the investigation into the Corona virus outbreak and the EU drafted resolution on coronavirus by the World Health Assembly which was abstained by both China and US currently at loggerheads across the politico-economic spectrum. Need for ensuring and developing accountability and early warning systems is an important global imperative.

India is often called the “Pharmacy of the World”. In order to provide succour and assistance to its partners especially in Africa and the developing world India has continued to supply lifesaving drugs at highly competitive prices. It also emerged as a major supplier of bulk drugs to the west and even faced their ire for alleged IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) violations even if it carried those out in accordance with the granted exemptions. Given its strides in health care NHS of UK outsourced a significant part of their backlog to Indian hospitals. And for large number of countries in Africa and the Middle East India has become a preferred destination for complicated medical treatment.

At the same time India has been helping set up local facilities both in private and public sector with the Lines of Credit and outright Grant provisionsespecially in Africa. Profit may be the entrepreneurial motive but has not been the primary one in the provision of healthcare. In some countries in Africa, in order to discredit India and capture the market, some Chinese firms replicated the drug labels and supplied spurious and substandard and less potent medicines. Fortunately, the racket was unearthed in collaboration with the local Drug Enforcement Authorities. This is not to say that we do not have unethical firms but playing with the healthcare has high costs.

Since 2009, India has been supporting healthcare systems and expertise in Africa through the telemedicine programme under the aegis of its Pan-Africa e-network satellite based enterprise ensuring continental connectivity with our African friends. This was guided by the vision of President Kalam which was also aimed at bridging the digital divide when he addressed the PAN- African Parliament in Johannesburg in 2004. It is no wonder that during the Covid 19 Indian healthcare experts conducted e-ITEC programme for training the healthcare professionals and paramedics from several countries. The e-Arogyabharati project is being further expanded and upgraded under the fully funded MEA’s V-BAB initiative which will provide free tele-education to over 4000 Africans over a period of five years.

Covid -19 has challenged the world as never before to accord the highest priority to strengthen their healthcare systems at a war footing. It is ironical that healthcare budgets across the world have been abysmal. It is imperative that “Atmanirbhar” or “Self Reliance” to the extent possible must apply to public health on the same footing as the defence of the country by investing in R&D, STEM research and development of AI tolls for diagnostics. Replacement and reduction in dependency on imported APIs and critical inputs due to cost considerations must be dispensed with. People ought to be the priority for any government.

India, despite inherent challenges, has been successfully facing an uphill task and will have to cope up with notable Covid spread till a vaccine is found as it is already the 5th worst hit nation in the world. With an exceptional civilizational heritage in the medical field bequeathed by Charak and Susruta and Ayurveda and Yoga and equally adept expertise in the modern allopathic medicine India needs to be at the height of preventive health and advanced curative healthcare systems so that it not only looks after its own people but its friends too. It may not be a truism that we have to live with VIRUS but let’s live on our own terms.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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