With the Wuhan virus pandemic enforcing a complete lockdown of the country for several weeks followed by a partial easing, the normal functioning of the Government, and indeed the society at large, was disrupted. Other parts of the Government, especially the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), had its share of challenges on the diplomatic front, which it has discharged commendably under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The immediate challenge was to obtain the cooperation of foreign embassies in the country to observe the lockdown, function with reduced staff, and accept severe restrictions on plying of diplomatic vehicles on the roads, and so on. Some missions were unhappy with the restrictions, arguing they needed more personnel and vehicle passes to handle the several flights they were organising to evacuate their citizens from India. It goes to the credit of the MEA that in the most intensive phase of the lockdown, it handled the requirements of the mission with firmness combined with flexibility to the point that many missions have lauded the excellent cooperation they received from the Ministry. The MEA facilitated the evacuation of 60,000 nationals from 70 countries. As the situation has evolved, a 100-member COVID cell is now functioning in the Ministry.
More importantly, bringing back the Indians stranded abroad posed a problem with the lockdown and a ban on international flights. Some nationals were evacuated early on from Wuhan, Iran, and Japan. Subsequently, in the first phase of the Vande Bharat mission, 7,000 Indians were brought back directly to secondary airports in the States as a part of control measures. This administrative arrangement required a great deal of coordination between the MEA, our missions abroad and State Governments. In the second mission, 30,000 Indians from 31 countries will be brought back home. Altogether 200,000 Indian nationals will be repatriated. Those who may have to wait for evacuation are from countries such as Peru, Serbia, Bulgaria etc. are being given full assistance by the Indian missions, including mobilising support for them by local organisations. At the senior level, the MEA has appointed one Additional Secretary each in important states receiving evacuees for single-point coordination.
At a higher diplomatic level, the MEA has played a crucial role in PM’s initiative to hold discussions within the framework of SAARC, the G20 and the virtual Non-Aligned Summit. Not only that, even the Prime Minister has personally spoken to several world leaders, apart from the EAM holding several virtual meetings with the Foreign Ministers of the Quad plus group, and that of BRICS and the SCO, not to mention individual Foreign Ministers. The Foreign Secretary has been intimately involved in Indo-Pacific dialogue on the situation arising from the virus with a focus on health and food supply issues, besides talking to Russia and the EU on COVID-related cooperation.
This active diplomacy has been necessary in view of the unprecedented international crisis caused by the Wuhan virus that requires a multilateral as well as a plurilateral efforts to assess its consequences, discuss the need for an independent probe into its origin, the strengthening of the WHO to deal with such pandemics in the future by developing new protocols, the necessity of working together to minimise the devastating economic impact of this pandemic by avoiding protectionism and coordinating to the extent possible the stimulus measures taken by individual countries. In the absence of international leadership because of internal politics in the US around the handling of the pandemic by President Trump, China’s aggressive posturing and resort to threats against those who demand a probe into China’s handling of the epidemic when it first erupted in Wuhan and its culpability in its delay to take steps that could have prevented it from becoming a pandemic, and the disarray in Europe caused by the spread of the virus there, Prime Minister at his level, supported by the MEA has tried to fill that leadership void with visible success.
As part of India’s leadership role, it made available medicines like Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol in large quantities to numerous countries to meet their domestic requirements in a crisis situation. These have been made possible after a meticulous study of domestic need in a worst-case scenario and the surplus available for meeting the needs of other countries either commercially or a grant basis. This has been part of India’s imaginative medicine diplomacy, which has generated positive sentiments towards India, with many world leaders conveying their gratitude to India. India also met the request for Rapid Response Teams to deal with the virus from countries such as Kuwait, Seychelles and Comoros, for example, and has sent medicines to Bahrain. In the Gulf, while India would have to cope with numbers coming back, make a list of their skills for use domestically, there is a surge in demand for health workers for which retired personnel from the armed forces could be mobilised. 15,000 Indian nationals working in cruise liners would also need to brought back, which is another organisational challenge for the MEA.
Under instructions from the Prime Minister to our heads of missions, our missions have been pro-active in sourcing medical equipment, make openings for our participation in R&D for medicines or development of a vaccine for combatting the virus, with the result that any success in this regard will have some Indian participation, which, in turn, will facilitate more access to breakthroughs. The MEA has been active in procuring critical components from China for N-95 masks, Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol, besides Roche machines for rapid anti-body tests, ventilators, testing kits and PPEs from abroad to ensure a reliable supply chain. As it happens, India itself has ramped up its own production of ventilators, APIs, PPEs etc. and is in a position to export its surplus.
Now that India is going to chair the WHO’s Executive Board and politically sensitive issues such as the re-entry of Taiwan as an observer in the World Health Assembly and demand for an independent probe into the origin of the Wuhan virus in the interest of transparency and accountability – a demand that China opposes – will be on the agenda, Indian diplomacy will be tested. China continues to disregard India’s core interests by not only aggressively claiming Indian territory while it seeks support from us for the so-called One-China policy, but also making repeated attempts to put the Kashmir issue on the UNSC agenda. It has just signed an agreement to build a large dam in India’s territory in Gilgit-Baltistan. All this requires a riposte from India, one that is perfectly justifiable.
(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary. The views expressed are personal)