Covid Diplomacy: How India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ Jabs Have Put China on the Ropes

·4-min read

Rattled by New Delhi’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, has started a smear campaign against India in a big way.

In a series of articles and opinion pieces, the newspaper has not just questioned India’s capacity to produce enough number of vaccine doses, citing the fire at the Serum Institute of India's campus in Pune last week, but also the “efficacy of India's locally-developed vaccines”, taking a potshot at Covaxin, India's indigenous preventive against Covid-19, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV).

Beijing’s anxiety stems from the fact that it is seen globally as the country where the SARS-CoV-2 originated, which has resulted in over two million deaths and around 10 million infections globally till date. The pandemic brought the world economy to a grinding halt. India, on the other hand, is being seen as a benevolent friend providing the world the much needed healing touch with whatever it has to offer, especially to the poorer nations.

Reaffirming Indian philosophy of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family), New Delhi so far has gifted around five million vaccine doses to its neighbours, including 20 lakh doses to Bangladesh, and 10 lakh doses to Nepal, a country China is desperately trying to get into its circle of influence. Other recipients include Maldives, a victim of Chinese debt diplomacy, Bhutan, a constant target of Chinese expansionism, etc.

In contrast to India, Beijing is yet to gift vaccine doses to its most trusted ally, Pakistan. China’s promised 0.5 million doses ‘gift’ to Pakistan is expected to land in Islamabad by January 31, according to the country’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

Not just India, a handful of other countries too are using vaccine production as a means to boost their global influence. However, backed by its vaccine manufacturing prowess, India was quick to reach out to its neighbours while starting the world’s largest vaccination drive in its own territory, something China failed to do despite being the industrial production powerhouse of the world.

The US State Department said, "India's a true friend using its pharma to help the global community." Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, took to Twitter to thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “continued support to the global COVID19 response”. Invoking Lord Hanuman, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro thanked India for supplying two million vaccine doses, akin to "Sanjeevani Booti", to Brazil.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli have also hailed India’s gesture. India’s global image and prestige have got a big boost thanks to Vaccine Maitri. China on the other hand has only received brickbats.

Chinese companies had already signed deals for vaccine supply with at least 24 countries, according to a New York Times report. “China’s coronavirus vaccines were supposed to deliver a geopolitical win that showcased the country’s scientific prowess and generosity. Instead, in some places, they have set off a backlash,” wrote the NYT, citing issues with Chinese vaccines in countries like Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

Besides, many countries are concerned about the efficacies and side effects of a Chinese vaccine due to opaque data. According to a Bloomberg report, Sinovac had “four wildly different efficacy rates” ranging from a little over 50% to 91.25%.

The Global Times further claimed that India’s vaccines are mainly supplied to South Asian countries, as a form of aid and “not many countries actually purchased Indian vaccines due to quality concerns”. Contrary to the claim, a total of 92 countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bolivia, have approached India for commercial supply of vaccines, according to a report.

China hoped to shore up its image in view of the backlash over the “Wuhan Virus”. However, it was India which led from the front when it came to virus-fighting efforts. In March last year, PM Modi held a meeting with SAARC leaders and proposed the creation of a Covid-19 emergency fund with India making an initial offer of USD 10 million. Later, India led the world in the supply of HCQ (Hydroxychloroquine) to over 55 countries, many of them for free, after the US FDA identified it as a possible treatment for Covid-19.

As a caring neighbour and in keeping with its long-stated policy of "neighbourhood first", New Delhi supplied masks, head-covers and even ICU ventilators to neighbouring countries. On the other hand, China’s efforts were purely commercial, aimed at selling its expensive vaccines, with a two-dose regimen costing anything between $60 to $150, according to a report. Not surprisingly, India’s cheaper and effective alternative has rattled the Dragon.

While criticising India’s efforts on the vaccine front, China forgot that an estimated 65% of the children in the world receive at least one vaccine manufactured by India’s Serum Institute. Besides, it “solely accounts for around 60% of the total vaccines supplied to the UNICEF”, according to IMARC, a globally recognised leading market research firm.