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India manufactured the world's vaccines. Now repay the favour

by Mukhtar Karim | Lady Fatemah Trust
Thursday, 29 April 2021 10:53 GMT

Pramila Shah, 82, receives the second dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, as Hansa Pandhi, 76, waits for her turn at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India, April 28, 2021. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India’s brutal surge in COVID infections underlines the urgent need for a new global health bloc to share human, medical and financial resources

Mukhtar Karim is chief executive of Lady Fatemah Trust

Developed nations need Indian-made vaccines, India needs more oxygen and ventilators. 

This kind of mutual dependency means that British support of India is about more than just aid - it is about a new kind of alliance and interdependence that we should embrace. The virus peaks in different parts of the world at different times, meaning that if we pool our resources globally, we can save more lives. 

That pooling works both ways - not just in rich nations supporting poorer ones, as with traditional aid or poor nations being exploited in the name of trade. Just as the support is bilateral, so are the benefits.

The UK in particular is fast returning to normal due to a vaccination effort made possible by the ‘pharmacy of the world’, India. It is not just the UK who has benefited: In total, India has exported 66 million doses across the world, and has produced 60% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines, many of which have been distributed for free to some of the world’s poorest people under the COVAX scheme 

Yet India is now experiencing the most brutal and unforgiving surge in COVID cases and deaths that we have seen since the pandemic began, with descriptions of the situation being ‘worse than a World War’ and to the extent that there are now shortages of firewood for cremations. Working through the Lady Fatemah Trust on the ground in India, my colleagues have witnessed these difficulties first-hand.

Whilst the moral and humanitarian case for rallying to India’s support is obvious, it is also in the interest of Britain and other developed nations who want to secure their supplies of vaccines and other essential items, and protect themselves against variants.

So far the support the world has offered India has amounted to nothing more than token gestures. At the time of writing, the UK has sent 495 oxygen concentrators, as well as 120 non-invasive ventilators and 20 manual ventilators. Biden claims to be ‘working around the clock’ to deploy drug treatments and rapid diagnostic COVID-19 testing kits to India whilst millions of unused Astrazeneca vaccines remain locked up in American storage.

Whilst these humanitarian gestures are welcome, they are a drop in the ocean given what India’s 1.39 billion population needs. Understandably, many Indians feel betrayed by a rich world that they have supported through vaccine manufacturing, and a world that has yet to substantially act on the empathy it is expressing.

It is time for Britain, for example, to increase its aid budget back to 0.7% of GDP. This should not be seen as aid per se, but as an investment in global health security and in the alliances that can keep us all safe.

The last existential threat that faced the world was the atomic bomb, out of which NATO was born. In response to COVID, there should be a new global health bloc that can share human, medical and financial resources in the face of pandemics.

That is certainly what many Indians will want, in place of the ‘no strings attached’ ‘VaccineMaitri’, or Vaccine Friendship scheme

Rather than ad hoc, reactive and piecemeal aid efforts, moves like these should be seen as part of global health security.

These pacts will be essential when the next pandemic - even the next COVID mutation - emerges. Relationships like this will also be important in fighting global issues such as the effects of climate change. 

Both pandemics and climate events affect different countries at different times, and do not respect wealth or borders, and just as the threat of nuclear annihilation brought disparate partners together in NATO, the dangers of health security should drive us closer together.

This starts with recognising how dependent we are on each other, and committing to providing what our friends around the world need - just as they make sure to give us the supplies on which we are dependent.

Our political alliances should no longer be based primarily on geography or business needs, but on values and compassion. 

India’s initial act of generosity - becoming the world’s pharmacy - needs to be reciprocated. Perhaps it is time for Britain to become the world’s paramedic.