With 40 percent of the population vaccinated, a palpable sense of normalcy has returned to America. The young are now getting their turn at the COVID vaccine and in almost every city, restaurants and bars are back in full swing. But while selfies of joyful reunions with older relatives flood social media here, in India, the picture is grim.
The country reported world record-breaking coronavirus infection rates for four days in a row. Hospitals in several cities are grappling with severe shortages of beds, medicines and oxygen. For a country widely seen as the pharmacy of the world (India produces 60 percent of the world’s total vaccines), it is a sad irony that just 8 percent of its own population has been vaccinated thus far. In the middle of a second-wave surge, pleas from India’s largest vaccine manufacturer and government officials to the Biden administration to lift its export ban on raw materials needed for ramping up production of COVID-19 vaccines were met with inaction and callous indifference.
Asked by reporters during the daily news conferences at the White House, both Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Andy Slavitt said they had no answer and press secretary Jen ‘Circle Back’ Psaki gave a vague response about not having ‘anything further in terms of next steps or a timeline’ but reassured us that the administration was ‘considering a range of options’. To add insult to injury, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that ‘the United States first and foremost is engaged in an ambitious and effective and, so far, successful effort to vaccinate the American people.’‘It is not only in the US interest to see Americans vaccinated; but it is in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated,’ he remarked.
What a slap in the face to a very crucial ally in a time of need. This is precisely the kind of America First jingoism that former president Donald Trump was constantly excoriated for, yet when it came to such a brazen example of nationalism from the current administration in response to a devastating crisis, the US media was largely silent.
Perhaps the White House needed time to figure out whether to lift the embargo on vaccine ingredients or if the 20 million stockpiled AstraZeneca vaccines that the US is currently sitting on (and would likely never use) should be sent to India, but surely a public message of solidarity for a country hailed as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific was warranted at the very least? Smaller nations such as Singapore have already provided much needed oxygen tanks, a gesture which the United States can surely offer without much trouble. Instead, the Indian public witnessed Russia and China — which India is locked in a border conflict with — come to their aid, long before hearing from any senior US officials; even the prime minister of Pakistan sent out a tweet offering sympathy and compassion. Chinese state media couldn’t help but jump into the fray by asserting that ‘it’s telling how the US treats India’.
To say that this is a self-sabotage of the US-India bilateral relationship is an understatement. Whatever correction is made in the coming weeks by the Biden administration, enough damage has already been done to the geopolitical alliance and the public goodwill toward the US. Most recently, Biden’s Treasury Department placed India on the currency manipulator watch list and the US Navy conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises near Lakshadweep island, without extending the courtesy of informing its supposedly close ally. And now with its inaction in the face of a humanitarian disaster, how exactly does the Biden administration expect to maintain a strong bilateral relationship with India, whose cooperation in the Quad is key to challenging China?
To be clear, India finds itself in this predicament after successfully taming the pandemic last year largely because of government ineptitude and public complacency. PM Narendra Modi continued to hold large rallies in state elections. Scores of people attended religious festivals and sporting events in the last few months, even as its vaccination rollout began. Some cynics speculate that the US’s inertia to come to India’s help might be an attempt to derail Modi — a Trump ally — further, ensuring that he faces up to his own culpability. Hanlon’s Razor suggests though that the Biden administration was probably consumed by domestic issues and inadvertently made one of the biggest foreign policy fumbles thus far.
As images of bodies filling up crematoriums and video footage of ambulances darting between hospitals in search of empty beds spread on social media, many in the Indian diaspora living in Western nations have grown frustrated and weary. In particular, many Indian-Americans were hoping for stronger and quicker action from the Biden administration given that his VP, Kamala Harris, had emphasized her Indian heritage in her bid for political office. It’s estimated that at the current rate, domestic manufacturers will be able to produce enough doses by early June to vaccinate every American, leaving the US in a position to be altruistic and generous with minimal opportunity costs. Beyond any geopolitical play, limiting the outbreak in India, with 1.4 billion lives supported by a fragile healthcare system, will go a long way to counter the spread of the new double mutant (named B.1.617) that emerged there.
If it is serious about building trust and friendship with India, it’s time for the Biden administration to put its money where its mouth is. India, China and the rest of the world are watching closely.
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