India steps up health diplomacy to build new narratives in multilateralism

Although the COVID-19 crisis has provided an immediate context for Indian outreach, health has been for years on its foreign policy agenda and New Delhi has been quite active in promoting global health partnerships, writes Saroj Mohanty for South Asia Monitor

Saroj Mohanty Jun 24, 2020

“Beyond the profit and loss, able and unable, for us, this hour of crisis is to help others as much as possible to forward the hand of help.” These words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the World Buddhist Council on May 7 on the occasion of Vesak summed up India’s health diplomacy, especially in the context of the current corona crisis that has wrecked public health and economies across the globe. India has been a major victim of the COVID-19 virus, but it has drawn world attention for another significant reason.

Known for years now as the ‘world’s pharmacy’ for producing low-cost, generic medicines and supplying those to both developed and developing countries across continents, India has so far sent medicines such as hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol sought by more than 150 countries both as grant assistance as well on commercial terms. Also, it has been collaborating with some on research and development of cures for the disease that has taken a heavy toll on human lives and disrupted economies. It has contributed to hybrid players like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). 

Moreover, at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last month India stressed the need to ensure access to essential medicines and vaccines at an affordable cost for all countries and called for flexibility in global Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreements. The prime minister has spoken to some 40 world leaders and exchanged views and shared India’s experience in flattening the spread of the disease. He and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have engaged in individual and multilateral dialogue with regional groupings like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and G20.

Global health partnerships

Although the COVID-19 crisis has provided an immediate context for Indian outreach, health has been for years on its foreign policy agenda, and New Delhi has been quite active in promoting global health partnerships. This is simply because health has come to play a major role in forging ties and in recent years its importance has grown as a national and international security issue. And as could be seen, India’s role has proceeded on three broad fronts. First, India has been a donor of health aid by ensuring access to medicines and sharing its experiences, particularly with developing countries. India has offered telemedicine and training of healthcare professionals from SAARC countries and Africa. 

As part of South-South Cooperation, it has also tried to facilitate best practices by linking hospitals and educational institutions with Indian counterparts. The country has supplied low cost diagnostic kits for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis, SAARS and H1N1.  The policy move has gained more salience in view of China’s renewed push on this front in the continent. Last week Beijing held a China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 and President Xi Jinping called for increased collaboration and said the two sides must work together to build a China-Africa community of health for all and take their partnership to greater heights.

Second, the government’s efforts have been reinforced by India’s private sector which has provided solutions and high-quality, low-cost healthcare to the developing world. For instance,  WHI has undertaken community ophthalmology training in several African countries. Narayana Health has a hospital in Grand Cayman island that has treated patients mainly from the Caribbean and Central America. All these have helped India to earn goodwill and boosted its soft power. 

Third, with rising challenges to human security India over the years has been engaged internationally on issues such as non-communicable diseases and bioterrorism. The corona crisis has demonstrated that no country could escape its impact. At another level, it exposed the struggle of countries to craft a global response as most have concentrated their efforts on the domestic front and there is a lack of leadership at the world stage to coordinate steps to combat the virus. 

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd pointed this out. “On any measure, the global response, both on public health and economic policy, has been unacceptably slow and disorganised,” Rudd told Nikkei Asian Review. The crisis thus has stressed the need for reforms in international organisations that jells well with the policy vision of India as a “leading power.” 

Last month India took the chair of the executive board of the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has been under scrutiny now for its alleged ineffectiveness to deal with the current pandemic. And on returning to the UN Security Council, the country said it would promote multilateral solutions to the COVID-19 crisis and push for reformed multilateralism to reflect contemporary realities. This is expected to help demonstrate its capacity for building new narratives of multilateral cooperation and leadership in the post-COVID world. 

(The writer is a strategic affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal)

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