COVID19: A Global Responsibility?

In February 2021, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party passed a resolution unequivocally hailing the “visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi” in turning India into a “victorious nation in the fight against COVID”. Two months later, India is witnessing the world’s worst Covid surge. India is in the midst of a vast crisis. It is no more a matter of ‘internal concern’ but has blown out of proportion, becoming a global concern. Aid has started gushing in, and worldwide, gestures have been made to improve the country’s situation. There has been growing criticism of Prime Minister Modi’s government for the country’s lack of readiness for the second wave. Complacency has been encouraged by the government in the form of large religious gatherings and political rallies. The opposition has called out the government for being in denial and seeking international help.

The pandemic is taking a horrific turn as the cases continue to rise. India has recorded the most number of cases in a day which was more than 4,00,000 and continues to break its record every day. Experts say the current crisis could have been avoided if the government had acted earlier. The country’s healthcare system is on its verge of collapse as hospitals in various states have run out of hospital beds and medical oxygen. To combat the growing demand for oxygen within the country, India has reached out to various countries to acquire containers and oxygen cylinders.

The world has stepped in with assistance. The first shipments have arrived with the first medical aid from the UK. The package included 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators. It is used to treat mild to moderate patients and doesn’t need refilling as it uses oxygen from the surrounding. Every concentrator costs 70,000 to 2 lakh Indian rupee. In recent days India has procured 12 oxygen containers from three countries- 4 from Singapore, six from the UAE, and four from Thailand. These empty containers will be used to transport oxygen around the country. Countries like France and Germany have also pitched in with specialised medical equipment.

A solidarity operation to help India come out of the rampaging second wave has been announced by President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron. The operation will be coordinated by France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs with the help of the French embassy in India. The French Ministry released a statement which declared that the operation would deliver eight oxygen concentrators, containers of liquid oxygen, specialised medical equipment including 28 respirators, and 200 electric syringe pumps, among others.

Singapore has sent a consignment of medical oxygen cylinders to support India’s battle against the new Covid strain, the country’s foreign affairs ministry said on Wednesday. The second minister for foreign affairs, Dr Maliki Osman, flagged off two of the Singapore Air Force’s C-130 aircraft, which arrived in the state of West Bengal with 256 oxygen cylinders, said Singapore’s diplomatic missions in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai.

Shortages of regular drugs like remdesivir and sedatives are also a huge problem. The hoarding by panic-stricken citizens and the increased prices in black markets have led to scarcities that threaten to upend progress against the deadly second wave.

The current Indian government has a fascination with building brick walls and erecting tin sheets displaying a total dismissal of its drawbacks. But this is now too large a situation to be hidden from the world’s appraising glance as the Covid funerals are being captured in satellite imagery. Unlike the government, the world has decided not to be a mute spectator to this level of humanitarian crisis.

A statement from the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said Karina Gould, minister of international development, had announced $10 million in funding for humanitarian assistance to the Canadian Red Cross to aid the Indian Red Cross Society’s response to the grappling situation in India.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday that his country would deliver oxygen, ventilators, and private protective equipment to India as a part of an instantaneous support package to the country.

Russia is one of the latest countries to join the global call to help India. Russian Prime Minister Putin “expressed solidarity with the people and government of India and conveyed that Russia would extend all possible support in this regard”, according to a statement from the External Affairs Ministry. Russian military aircraft will deliver more than 22 tonnes of equipment, including 20 oxygen production units, 75 ventilators, 150 medical monitors, and 200,000 packs of medicine.

Saudi Arabia has shipped 80 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen to India.

The world’s largest building in Dubai, the Burj Khalifa, was lit up in the colours of the Indian flag with the message “stay strong India” to showcase its support to India in times of crisis.

South Korea has also stepped in and has decided to provide India with oxygen concentrators, covid-19 diagnostic kits, and other aid items.

Even India’s long-term geopolitical enemy, Pakistan, has offered to provide relief support, including ventilators and ambulances. Several Pakistanis, including sports players and political leaders, offered prayers and good wishes for India on Twitter.

The US, which formerly had apprehensions and abstained from providing help to India, has now taken a different route and decided to help India during the crisis. The Biden administration had come under criticism from various quarters, including from supporters of the Democratic Party, for not releasing surplus COVID-19 vaccines and raw materials to India when the country was experiencing its worst public health disaster.

United States President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have assured India and its people of providing all assistance, including urgently sending necessary medical life-saving supplies and equipment, to help the country combat the deadly coronavirus crisis.

“Just as India sent assistance to the US as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden said in a tweet.

Despite the initial speed bumps, India is receiving help from its global partners. This is also the result of India’s goodwill during the pandemic. India exported medicines and raw materials for vaccines like hydroxychloroquine to over 100 nations in the initial days. Despite being the top exporter of vaccines, India faces an acute shortage of vaccines at home. The government was eager to wield its dominance as the “pharmacy of the world,” exporting vaccines even as it vaccinated only 0.002% of its population per day. “The complete policy complacency created a scenario where we allowed COVID-19 to get the better of us,” says Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “We couldn’t have predicted the scale, but the complete lack of preparedness and crowding in pursuit of power is really unforgivable.”

The Divide

 The US has tens of millions of unused doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been approved for use there. Calls by Indian officials and the Serum Institute of India (SII) were followed for the US to lift export controls on raw materials for vaccines that were put in place in February. Washington has also been criticised for delaying a decision on sending surplus vaccine doses abroad. White House’s Chief Medical Adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, has said that countries across the globe have failed to unite to help India against the explosive surge in coronavirus cases. Referring to the unprecedented surge within the country as “tragic”, Fauci addressed the inequality among countries in terms of access to healthcare. While speaking to The Guardian, Fauci said that the situation in India has pointed out global inequality. He emphasised the importance of handling the COVID-19 pandemic with a “global response” while adding that this has not been “accomplished”.

Rich countries with 14% of the world’s population have secured 53% of the best vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines will attend rich countries. The Moderna vaccine will go to rich countries exclusively; it’s not even being offered to the poor. In fact, nine out of 10 people in poor countries may never be vaccinated at all. Washington is sitting on vaccines, ensuring no one gets any, while the US needs them.  Only rich countries like the US can have the luxury of vaccine hesitancy as they have other alternatives to fall back on. Countries like China have successfully turned this pandemic into an enterprise exporting cheap quality drugs and equipment at high rates. It has stood on its ground of making good use of a crisis.

This leads to the question of whether the advantages of globalisation are reserved for the developed countries and the losses have to be borne by the developing nations.

 The European Union has exported 34m doses to, of all places, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong – countries that are resourceful enough to pay for vaccines. Canada has bought more doses per head than any other country – enough doses to vaccinate five times the population of Canada. But the entire continent of Africa has been allocated a total of 300m doses which has a population of 1.3 billion people.

One in four people in wealthy countries has got a vaccine. What about the poor nations? Just one in 500 people have got a vaccine in impoverished nations. This is not only a question of inequity which is already at its worst, but at this rate, the pandemic will take years to end.

The various solutions to this worldwide crisis are possible only if some nations comply with cooperating. Preventing the stockpile of shots by wealthy nations, suspending the patents and sharing technology and resources are the most effective methods.

India and South Africa are involved in a campaign to get COVID-19-related intellectual property rights temporarily waived to unleash a cascade of production. In October 2021, the two nations asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) for certain intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medical tools and technologies to be suspended until herd immunity has been achieved. The proposal has got substantial support and is backed by around 100 countries and by a coalition of organisations called the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which includes the United Nations HIV/AIDS agency UNAIDS and human-rights group Amnesty International. The power to converge remains with those who have the clout and expertise in making vaccines, and the efforts have languished on their part.

The key blockage in mRNA-vaccine manufacture is a worldwide shortage of essential components, especially nucleotides, enzymes and lipids. Relatively few companies make these products, and not in sufficient numbers for global supply. Moreover, these companies are proving slow to license their manufacturing so that others could do this. There needs to be a partnership between big pharma companies and governments all over the globe to cooperate and license its technology to as many manufacturers as possible to diversify the production of life-saving vaccines. 

It is crucial to understand that the rich nations cannot completely get rid of it until the whole world gets vaccinated. The longer the virus spreads, the more are its chances to become impervious to vaccines and mutate into something more contagious and deadly. It is a global crisis, and gains made anywhere will eventually be jeopardised in the long run.

The virus does not discriminate in regard to nationality or race and can cross boundaries. This is exactly what the world must work collectively to support each other.

By Mudita Mishra

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