Joe Biden’s ‘America First’ policy on vaccines may create a serious wrinkle in bilateral ties as pandemic ravages India
When the US claims moral leadership and professes to be a normative superpower, then it must defer to its moral obligations or else risk the unraveling of its power
According to health ministry data, India on Friday reported a record-breaking 332,730 new cases of COVID-19, pushing the total caseload past 16 million. Deaths rose by 2,263 to reach a total of 186,920. These debilitating numbers are attached with a reasonable scare that we haven’t seen the worst yet.
As India’s health system collapses under the weight of a devastating second wave, leaving a country of 1.4 billion reeling on the brink of an unprecedented disaster, a huge amount of public rage — organic and driven by the street — is being directed at “strategic partner” United States for what is being perceived here as ‘hoarding’ of vaccines by the Joe Biden administration, ‘blocking’ of raw materials essential for vaccine production and turning a deaf ear to India’s desperation for help.
There would be riders, technicalities and complexities cited by the US side as justification for its actions. And this is not to say that America’s vaccine policy has caused India’s biggest health crisis. But these caveats matter little when a majority of Indians express their outrage (and one has to take only a cursory look at social media timelines) at India’s ‘natural ally’ creating impediments instead of facilitating vaccine production while millions in India are struggling to cope with the ferocity of the pandemic.
This not only casts the Biden administration — that stresses on globalism and never tires to claim moral leadership of the democratic world — in unflattering light, but also raises the possibility that bilateral ties may become irreparably strained and make it harder for Washington to pursue its strategic goals vis-à-vis India. Foreign policy cannot remain immune to domestic concerns.
India’s sense of injury has been compounded by the fact that when the US was going through a similar health crisis late last year, the Narendra Modi government eased an export ban on anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine — that Donald Trump at that time had touted as a “game changer” — and shipped it to the US despite domestic criticism.
Trump had termed Modi’s gesture “terrific” and wrote on Twitter: “Extraordinary times require even closer cooperation between friends. Thank you India and the Indian people for the decision on HCQ. Will not be forgotten! Thank you Prime Minister @NarendraModi for your strong leadership in helping not just India, but humanity, in this fight!”
As a commentary in Carnegie points out, “In addition, the (Indian) government eased the ban against nitrile butadiene rubber gloves, in the interest of protecting frontline workers across the globe.”
And yet, even though Washington is not facing any emergency, the Biden administration has refused to ease provisions of the Korean War-era Defense Production Act (DPA), that mandates manufacturers in the US (and those registered in the US) to prioritise supply of raw materials for the US domestic market.
In effect, this has meant that Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker that has been manufacturing the lion’s share of jabs that millions of Indians are getting inoculated with (and has also been catering to global markets), is at risk of running out of critical supplies such as cell culture media, reagents, tubing materials, nano-filters, plastic bagging material and equipment and 30 other items required for scaling up vaccine production.
The SII had brought this to the notice of Indian government on 6 March, requesting Centre’s intervention to ensure that critical supplies are not interrupted. According to a report in Livemint, the SII wrote in a letter, “...If we cannot get timely supplies of these essential products from the US, it is going to be a serious limiting factor resulting in acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines as their manufacture depends on uninterrupted supply of these raw materials, consumables and components etc.”
On 16 April, SII head Adar Poonawalla flagged the issue by tagging Biden on Twitter: “if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details.”
It is not as if the US was unaware of the effect its system of prioritising domestic production was having on global supply chain before Poonawalla’s direct request to Biden. Financial Times had quoted Mahima Datla, chief executive of Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E (the preferential manufacturer for Quad vaccine partnership), as saying in March that Washington’s use of the DPA will not only “make the scale up for Covid vaccines difficult, but because of this it’s going to make manufacturing of routine vaccines extremely difficult.”
India has also been raising the issue through official channels, even as vaccine manufacturers raise alarm that DPA could undermine global vaccination effort. But so far, all that the US has done is indulge in side-stepping, hair-splitting and obfuscation.
The Hindu quoted a Biden administration official as saying that “we reject any statement referring to a US export ban on vaccines. The United States has not imposed any ‘outright bans’ on the export of vaccines or vaccine inputs. This assertion is simply not true.” When a legislation expressly prevents export of critical raw materials by subjecting supply chain to ‘America First’ policy, then it is pure semantical jugglery to obfuscate on the “ban”.
On Wednesday, Biden claimed that the US still doesn’t have enough vaccines to share. “We don’t have enough to be confident to send it abroad now. But I expect we’re going to be able to do that” and added “we’re looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using.”
A way out could have been giving the license for production of vaccines in other nations, but “despite India and South Africa’s appeal to the World Trade Organization last October for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights (IPR) related to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, the US and Europe blocked that move that was backed by 80 WTO members,” reported Hindustan Times.
And on Wednesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price uttered comments that were insensitive, arrogant and raised doubts over the sincerity of Biden’s posturing that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”
When questioned on US reaction to India’s request on lifting of export controls, Price first tried to duck the issue saying “this is a question for USTR”, and when pressed further, said: “we have a special responsibility to the American people. Number two, the American people, this country has been hit harder than any other country around the world – more than 550,000 deaths, tens of millions of infections in this country alone. But there’s also a broader point here that I made yesterday that it’s, of course, not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated; it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”
A more tone-deaf statement could hardly have been delivered. “Diplomacy” is not just arranging meetings, photo-ops, releasing joint statements and issuing claims of “shared values” and “solidarity”, it is to extend a helping hand in crisis.
Moreover, Biden’s claim that US doesn’t have enough vaccines to share is factually dubious. The New York Times reports that 30 million “doses of the coronavirus vaccine made by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca are sitting idly in American manufacturing facilities, awaiting results from its US clinical trial while countries that have authorized its use beg for access.” According to the report, the US may never even need this stockpile at all.
The Washington Post cites a report by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center to inform us that the US “is on track to have gathered an oversupply of hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccine doses as soon as July, even while many countries in the developing world will have to wait years to vaccinate a majority of their populations.”
Data shows that while China has exported 48 percent of its vaccine production and India has shipped 44 percent of the doses that it has manufactured, the corresponding figure for the US is zero.
Prabir Purkayastha points out in Counterpunch, citing statistics from Our World in Data, that “about 112 million people in the US alone received at least a single vaccine jab by 8 April. This is more than 12 times higher than the total number of people vaccinated in the entire continent of Africa—which has four times the population of the US.”
Officials within the administration are “preparing for extreme backlash from the world for not sharing.” One senior official told Vanity Fair, “when they say we are hoarding, we are.”
But when the US president was asked about sharing of vaccines, he replied, “If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world… (but) “we’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first.”
This sounds eerily similar to Trump’s ‘America First’ policy except that the former US president didn’t indulge in duplicity and actually sent ventilators to India during New Delhi’s time of need. In contrast, Biden has refused to ship even surplus AstraZeneca vaccines that the US has not authorized for use and may never do. He also appears in no mood to ease DPA restrictions, essentially leaving India alone in its fight against the pandemic. What is particularly grating is that Biden talks about “global cooperation” to tackle the pandemic.
Biden’s grandstanding is vacuous, and his vaccine nationalism causes repercussions that are moral, geopolitical and related to public health.
When America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken talks about “American leadership” in the global fight against Covid, boasts that “there is no country on Earth that can do what we can do” and proclaims that “the world has to come together to bring the COVID pandemic to an end everywhere. And for that to happen, the United States must act and we must lead,” the world WILL hold the US to a higher standard. The Biden administration’s response to the pandemic so far has been deeply damaging for its own claims of moral leadership. To put it simply, America has dropped the ball.
Geopolitically, Biden’s myopic ‘America First’ policy has made it easier for China to fill in the gap created by lack of American leadership. India and China were at the forefront of catering life-saving jabs to the poorest of nations but now with India forced to curb its vaccine exports due to domestic compulsions, the stage is free for Chinese vaccines that are questionable and come with geopolitical riders.
As Nikkei Asia points out, “the global rollout of Chinese jabs amid a serious shortage of doses, especially in low-and middle-income countries, is helping Beijing attain a new kind of soft power that could easily translate into global clout. At least 70 countries and territories have either approved Chinese vaccines or struck deals to receive doses from China.”
America’s parochial vaccine policy is a danger to even itself. If the outbreak continues to rage in India and create newer and newer variants, the US won’t be spared of its aftereffects. India is a vaccine powerhouse. If its own vaccination program remains hamstrung due to supply chain issues emanating from the US, it will take longer to vaccinate its own people. As Slate points out, “India’s vaccine industry was supposed to provide tens of millions of shots for COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed effort to ship vaccines to developing countries. But the Indian government has now halted vaccine exports, meaning many parts of the world will have an even longer wait for vaccines. The consequences may be felt most acutely in Africa, which is home to 20 percent of the world’s population but has administered only 2 percent of vaccine doses.”
The consequences of America’s actions, therefore, will be far-reaching. US grandstanding has also extended to climate action, where Biden has gone ahead with the climate summit notwithstanding its Quad partner’s crippling public health emergency.
Every country works in self-interest. It may be said that the US has done nothing wrong in prioritising its own citizens. However, when the US claims moral leadership and professes to be a normative superpower — Biden’s catchphrase of “leading not just by the example of our power but the power of our example” — then it must defer to its moral obligations or else risk the unraveling of its power.
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