India has been hard-hit by COVID-19. The country has consistently reported high daily case counts in the tens of thousands since June of last year and, as a result, India has unfortunately secured a place for itself as the second most-affected country by COVID-19 in terms of confirmed cases, surpassed only by the United States. As of January 30, 2021, India has reported 10,733,131 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

With its persistently poor epidemiological situation, the approval of vaccines effective against coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could not come soon enough. Thus far, India has approved two COVID-19 vaccines for widespread use—the AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom, which has been dubbed “Covishield” in the Indian market, and the “Covaxin” vaccine, which has been developed domestically by Bharat Biotech. Equipped with these vaccines, India has begun to embark on one of the largest immunization campaigns in human history. In the coming months, India seeks to vaccinate a population of over 1.3 billion people via a healthcare system that, like many others around the globe, has had its weaknesses exposed and highlighted over the course of the last 12 months.

Numerous challenges stand in India’s way as it begins its domestic immunization campaign, including the nation’s vast land mass; its large, significantly dispersed rural population; its climate and the effects this may have on vaccines that need to be temperature-controlled; as well as, growing fears and skepticism around vaccines. Despite the fact that India is grappling with its own hurdles when it comes to its nation-wide immunization campaign, it has turned its attention and care to other countries in what has been dubbed an effort of “vaccine diplomacy”.

India: The Vaccination Nation

In a normal year, India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, producing approximately 60% of the global vaccine supply; in 2021, it appears that the Indian government intends for it to follow suit when it comes to vaccines for COVID-19. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that India will be entirely self-reliant and has the capacity to produce all doses of the vaccines required to immunize the Indian population against COVID-19. Due to the nation’s capacity to efficiently produce high-quality, mass quantities of vaccines, it has within its bandwidth the ability to produce vaccines for both external donation and commercial export, as well.

The Indian government has committed to donating millions of doses of both the Covishield and Covaxin vaccines to countries throughout the region, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka. The Serum Institute of India, which produces Covishield, has pledged to deliver up to 200 million doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021. Bharat Biotech, the producers of Covaxin, have indicated there are huge international demands on its product once production ramps up, as it is being sought after by dozens of countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Last year, to showcase that nation’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity and quality, as well as negotiate deals in both aid and trade, senior diplomats from numerous countries were invited to tour vaccine manufacturers across India. In good faith, India has already donated 1 million doses to Nepal and 1.5 million doses to Myanmar in 2021, in order to assist with the early immunization of critical healthcare workers in these countries. India has also made commercial deals with countries like Brazil and Morocco, and shipments have already begun.

Vaccines: A New Diplomatic Tool 

These efforts have been termed by many to be a great display of “vaccine diplomacy”, wherein India is using its strengths in manufacturing and pharmaceuticals to further its bilateral relationships and its international influence. This is evident in the countries that India has chosen to donate to and to trade with, as well as the ones it has not chosen.

The list of key recipients that India intends to donate vaccines to are partners within its immediate sphere of influence, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. By engaging in vaccine diplomacy with these nations, India is recognizing that, in the context of COVID-19, it holds assets and strengths in arenas that these countries do not. By playing to its strengths and donating large quantities of vaccine doses to other South Asian countries, India is not simply being a good neighbour—it is also reasserting its influence and further concretizing its role as the key donor country within the region.

By playing to its strengths and donating large quantities of vaccine doses to other South Asian countries, India is not simply being a good neighbour—it is also reasserting its influence and further concretizing its role as the key donor country within the region.

One country that is missing on the list of India’s South Asian recipients, unsurprisingly, is Pakistan. Despite being direct neighbours in the Indian subcontinent, India and Pakistan have a tumultuous past, filled with tension, wars, and even nuclear weaponry. As a result, the Indo-Pakistani bilateral relationship is strained, to say the least. In the absence of cordial relations with India, Pakistan has often turned to China for aid and allyship—this pattern holds true when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines.

In Pakistan, federal regulators have approved 3 vaccines for emergency use: the aforementioned AstraZeneca vaccine, the Chinese-made Sinopharm, and the Russian-developed Sputnik V. Pakistan is in the process of launching its national immunization campaign, which will begin with 500,000 doses of Sinopharm provided by donation from China. While the benefits of this donation for Pakistan are obvious, this is not a one-sided deal. By providing vaccines to Pakistan, China is able to display its own strengths in a region that is heavily influenced by India.

The dynamics at play here are not new—India and China are in an ongoing power struggle, wherein both countries seek to expand their sphere of influence across Asia and establish themselves as the strongest aid and trade partner for various South Asian nations. Simply put, COVID-19 vaccines are just another device or apparatus by which these two nations seek to exert their influence in the region.

While Canada does not boast any impressive vaccine manufacturing capabilities, nor are there any Canadian-made COVID-19 vaccines approved for use, there is still much Canada can learn from India’s vaccine diplomacy. By prioritizing bilateral donations of vaccines at the same time as it pursues its own domestic immunization campaign, India has displayed generosity to its neighbours—whether strategic or self-serving or not—and generosity seems to be in short supply in the current climate. Fears are rising across the globe about wealthier countries hoarding vaccines and discussions surrounding export bans on vaccines are plentiful. At a time like this, when it feels like an “every man for himself” situation, every country—including Canada—could stand to learn something from India and prioritize generosity to allies alongside domestic efforts, as we all move forward into this new phase of the pandemic and the global struggle against COVID-19, together.​

Karly Hurlock is a policy analyst and holds graduate degrees in History and International Development Policy. She is an alumna of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Her interests include the history of international aid, the nexus between international development and migration in South Asia, and Indo-Canadian relations.

Banner image by Mufid Majnun, courtesy of Unsplash.

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