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India started exporting COVID-19 vaccines to its neighboring countries on Wednesday, Jan. 20. Image Credit: AP

One ought to give credit where it is due. Managing a crisis as grave as the COVID-19 pandemic in a country of 1.3 billion people, with its multitude of socio-cultural diversities, is in itself a Herculean task.

Notwithstanding the plight of migrant labourers — who met with unimaginable miseries in grappling with the shock of a nationwide lockdown and its concomitant handicap — India showed remarkable resilience, both in terms of administrative wherewithal and a positive public sentiment to deal with an exigency that dwarfed even the two World Wars in terms of its human toll and a psychological scar.

In that sense, seeing the nation pull out all the punches and continue to battle the ravages of a deadly virus wreaking havoc not just in India but all over the world was in itself a huge morale-booster for Indians residing in the country as well those living and working abroad.

If that was the first test, then once the vaccines against COVID-19 became a reality, managing the administering of doses to a population spread across a land mass covering 3.287 million square kilometres posed a challenge on a different scale all together.

True, it’s still early days and India still has a long, long way to go before the last mile is covered and the last man, woman or child is vaccinated.

But what is indeed heartening to note is the way the Indian Government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a highly competent group of scientists, medical experts and support staff have utilised the country’s logistical heft in pharmacology and reached out not only to resident Indians, but also to the calls for help from countries across the globe.

Millions of free doses

Until January 23, India had sent the vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and mass-manufactured in India by Indian pharmaceutical firm Serum Institute to several countries in South Asia.

On January 20, the first consignments of free vaccine doses were airlifted to Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan. And by January 23, that is within just three days, India’s total consignment of free Covishield vaccine to other countries had reached 3.2 million doses.

Next in line will be Seychelles, Mauritius and Myanmar and will be followed by more vaccine shipments to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Apart from countries in South Asia and some of those bordering the Indian Ocean, India on Friday sent two million doses of the vaccine to Brazil.

Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, took to Twitter to thank the Indian prime minister, saying: “Thank you for assisting us with the vaccine exports from India to Brazil. Dhanyavaad [Thank you].”

Not just that, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Morocco are also in line to receive supplies of the vaccine from India over the next few days.

“Keeping in view the domestic requirements of the phased rollout, India will continue to supply COVID-19 vaccines to partner countries over the coming weeks and months in a phased manner. It will be ensured that domestic manufacturers will have adequate stocks to meet domestic requirements while supplying abroad,” said Anurag Srivastava, Spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, last Friday.

WHO lauds India’s outreach

Lauding India’s efforts, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement. “Thank you India & Prime Minister Narendra Modi for your continued support to global COVID-19 response. Only if we act together, including sharing of knowledge, can we stop this virus and save lives and livelihoods,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, said.

The last 12 months have proved that a crisis of this magnitude, that has shown such a fearsome ability to cut through geographical borders and spread faster than even the fiercest wildfire, demands a response that is steeped in a sense of urgency and purpose in equal measure.

Even some of the most developed countries in the world, in terms of health-care infrastructure and advanced medical research, have struggled to cope with this invisible enemy and the danger is not over yet. We are still counting the daily tally of positive cases and the daily bodybags coming out of hospitals and homes the world over.

Under such circumstances, for a developing country like India to be able to respond to the crisis in the way it has so far is indeed commendable.

The very fact that India has managed to not only cater to its domestic demand for vaccines, but has also responded to calls of help from its neighbours and even from nations in far-off continents is a clear sign of the heft that New Delhi has in terms of its pharmacological infrastructure and its diplomatic acumen as well.

Times of global stress and trauma

What has made India’s outreach particularly significant is the fact that both, the executive wing of the government and the research and manufacturing units of the pharmacological industry have worked in tandem to ensure a seamless delivery process.

It is this cohesion that has allowed the world’s second-most populous nation to not only manufacture enough doses to meet its demand at home, but also be able to answer calls for help from far beyond its shores.

Apart from foreign policy brownie points that such outreach programme is bound to bear — particularly in such extraordinary times of global stress and trauma — what India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has also likely achieved is to have opened the doors of its pharmacology sector to cooperation and knowledge-sharing from global pharmacological and pharmaceutical giants, thereby promoting greater firm-to-firm and people-to-people bonding.

It’s often said that every crisis comes with an opportunity. India has just proved that adage right as an exemplar of sorts.