On April 30, Super Galaxy, a huge US military plane, landed in Delhi, bringing oxygen cylinders, hospital equipment and Covid test kits. More flights with aid material are on the way to India. And, thereby hangs a tale.
Four days is a short period in the realm of politics and diplomacy, but what a difference it can make.
On April 22, Edward Price, the US state department spokesman, was asked at a press briefing about “the horrible surge” in the coronavirus infections in India and why the US was not lifting the ban on exports of raw materials for vaccine production. He uttered no word of sympathy, while offering a long explanation as to why it was “in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated”. A storm of protests and criticism erupted in India; influential members of the US political and corporate establishment implored their government to change its position. Four days later, on April 26, a much-chastened Price spoke about the importance of the “Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with India, providing details of how the administration planned to help India address the terrible pandemic.
President Joe Biden’s “America is back” mantra — which, for a moment, sounded more like Trump’s “America First”— re-assumed a liberal and humanitarian patina, thus indicating Washington’s right instincts for enlightened global leadership. In a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Modi, Biden acknowledged India’s assistance to the US in the early phase of the pandemic and expressed his determination to stand with India in times of her need.
After intensive inter-agency consultations in recent days, the US government came up with a positive response to India’s requirements. The package of assistance has several elements:
First, the US Defence Production Act’s provisions are being reconsidered. The authorities have agreed to approve the supply of filters needed for the manufacture of the Covishield vaccine.
Second, it is estimated that the US will have 60 million surplus doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by June, which it will not use at home. Subject to clearance by the FDA, this will be released for use by other countries. Whether some of them will be sent to India is not clear yet.
Third, a comprehensive plan has been prepared for the supply of oxygen-related equipment, including generation systems, cylinders and setting up of field hospitals with oxygen beds.
Four, a special focus is on stepping up commercial supplies of therapeutics, especially remdesivir. Immediate shipment of 1,00,000 vials by Gilead Sciences has been arranged, with another 2,00,000 vials to be made available by end-May.
Five, the US Development Corporation will fund the Indian vaccine firm BioE to expand its manufacturing capacity. This is covered under the Quad’s Vax Partnership, enabling India and the other three partners (US, Japan, Australia) to produce and distribute at least 1 billion doses by end-2022.
It is noteworthy that the Pentagon has been actively involved in helping India. Defence Secretary Llyod Austin observed that the department of defence has been directed to use its resources to provide frontline health workers with needed materials.
What is of immediate impact is the robust engagement of corporate, mostly Big Tech, America. Google, Microsoft and Apple — as well as others — Amazon, Proctor & Gamble and more — are coming forward to commit their resources. It’s a mix of altruism and pragmatism: US tech has large, valuable investments in India, especially Bangalore, which need protection. The US-India Strategic Partnership Forum is helping with 12 ISO containers for the transport of oxygen to India. The US-India Business Council has appealed to its members to offer assistance. On April 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened a Zoom meeting of business leaders. An Indian participant reported that “a massive effort and dollars” have been invested in supplying assistance urgently.
It is easy to see behind America’s turn around the benign hand of the Indian diaspora, backed by friendly American public figures and proactive diplomacy by India. Pramila Jayapal, the Congresswoman who riled the Modi government for her criticism of the human rights situation, raised her voice, stressing that it was both the right and necessary thing to assist India.
Even after the havoc wreaked by the second wave became clear, there was a disturbing “stony silence” in Washington, said an expert. The US should realise that the lingering anti-American sentiment (which has a long legacy) has not disappeared. It would be unwise to underestimate its strength. Fortunately, the India-US partnership is now so multi-faceted, deep and robust that it can withstand minor turbulence. The ease and candour with which communications occurred from the US President down to his Deputy Secretary of State and their Indian counterparts, showcased the vibrance of bilateral ties.
India-US relations are in a good place now. They are set to deepen further. When it comes to health-related cooperation, the US needs to internalise that helping India is really helping the world. Vaccines produced in India are meant not only for Indians but for the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America. That is why all influential figures in Washington should support the initiative by India and South Africa to seek a temporary IPR waiver under the TRIPS agreement. Many are already doing so enthusiastically — for they know that this is a potential game-changer. Let the magic of how India helped Africa vanquish the HIV/AIDS menace be recreated.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 7, 2021 under the title ‘India, US, four days in Covid’. The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador.