The Union government has received a lot of flak over its management of the pandemic response, and deservedly so. But I want to look at three incorrect — or at least problematic — frames being used to blame the government’s pandemic response, inadequate and confused as it already is. The intention is to focus on questions that matter.
Incorrect Frame #1: Blame Vaccine Diplomacy
As cases have skyrocketed and vaccine supplies have plummeted, India’s vaccine diplomacy has come under the scanner. Today’s dominant narrative is that by prioritising vaccine exports over domestic inoculation, India did a disservice to its people. I disagree. It’s not altruism but national self-interest that guides international humanitarian assistance efforts by all states. By giving away vaccines to smaller states in the subcontinent, India signalled the positive role it can play in the world order. Another way of thinking about vaccine diplomacy is to think of its opportunity cost. At the current vaccination rate, India would’ve had just five additional days of supplies had it not given any of the nearly 10.7 million doses as gifts to other countries. A majority of the deliveries (almost 35 million) have been under commercial terms between manufacturers and other countries. Moreover, had India blocked commercial exports earlier, India would’ve received much less enthusiastic support from other countries in this moment of crisis.
Holding the Union government accountable for its mistakes is essential. Equally important is identifying what the exact error was. The original sin was not placing enough vaccine orders because the government was complacent about having conquered the virus. It calculated that the pandemic would peter out even with a snail-paced domestic vaccination campaign.
By internalising that India was wrong in extending its help to other countries in its own time of predicament, we would be learning the wrong lesson. Such heuristics tend to stick around for long in the Indian strategic affairs community. Try arguing for developing overseas operations military capability of any kind, and the idea will be shot down, citing the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPFK) failure in Sri Lanka nearly three decades ago. Vaccine diplomacy mustn’t be perceived as another IPKF moment.
Image credits: Illustration by Freepik Storyset