Delhi’s decision to start sending vaccines to its neighbours in South Asia and other countries who have asked for it is the right step forward for India in its relations with its neighbours. It holds immense potential for a new kind of diplomacy in the region, one based on the common good and common interests of the South Asian people. As of now, India has shipped vaccines to Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles, and will send them to other countries as well, including Sri Lanka and Afghanistan once approvals are available.
In doing so, Delhi is fulfilling its role as a responsible nation. With its advanced cutting-edge healthcare in the private sector, India attracts thousands of people from all countries of South Asia for medical treatment, at a fraction of what it costs in the West. Medicines manufactured in India have a good reputation across South Asia, even in Pakistan. It was natural then that governments in the region would look to vaccines manufactured in India, especially Covishield, developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, as a viable option. In their recent visits to neighbouring capitals, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla were asked about and gave assurances on the possibilities of vaccine supply from India. It is commendable that Delhi has moved quickly to deliver on commitments made to some of these countries. While the initial supplies have been sent free of cost, it is possible that countries may choose to enter into commercial agreements with the manufacturers for more quantities. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh are already in such negotiations.
For it to have any lasting value for Delhi’s relationships with its neighbours, it is best that India refrains from chest thumping a saviour complex. It would also be unwise to make this yet another contest between India and China. Vaccines are a global common good, and the demand for anti-COVID 19 immunisation across the world is massive. It is the responsibility of all countries with the capability to manufacture the vaccine to make it available internationally, and equitably to all. This is in every country’s interest, as building a global immunity to COVID19 is crucial to restoring the movement of people and goods across nations, to life as it was pre-pandemic. Even as they get supplies from India, expect South Asian countries to tie up part of their supplies from China, which has already entered into agreements to supply its vaccines to several countries in South East Asia and Pakistan. Eventually, it is the efficacy of each vaccine, irrespective of where it is made, that will matter.