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26 April 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:14am

India’s second wave: Why Modi’s crisis is Biden’s too

The US president has a significant geopolitical imperative for supporting India through its Covid-19 catastrophe.

By Emily Tamkin

India is in crisis. Covid-19 cases are surging. People tweet out and send messages on WhatsApp and Instagram that they are looking for hospital beds and oxygen for family members and loved ones and friends of friends. People are dying without oxygen in Delhi. In Kolkata, every other person is testing positive for Covid.

On Sunday, the United States finally, belatedly announced that it would offer some help, making available specific raw material for the manufacture of vaccines, providing personal protective equipment, and “pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis”.

This is better than nothing. But it is not enough. Joe Biden should be doing everything in his power, including sending off AstraZeneca vaccines that are sitting unused and unapproved here in the United States and temporarily waiving the patent on Covid vaccines, as India proposed back in October. It is not enough to watch American citizens post selfies with vaccine cards and talk about economic reopenings and recovery; the US government needs to think of the rising Covid in India as its problem, too.

None of this is to say that the Indian government doesn’t itself hold responsibility for the surge in cases. India exported millions of vaccines to other countries before the second wave came crashing down. The ruling party, Narendra Modi’s BJP, allowed religious festivals to take place and prematurely declared victory over coronavirus. Modi continued holding rallies. India’s government ordered posts that were critical of the Indian government to be taken down from social media, which, all other issues aside, seems like an ineffective use of the Indian government’s time at this particular moment.

But noting the ways in which the Indian government could have behaved better or differently does not absolve the US of its own responsibility.

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[See also: How India lost control of Covid-19]

If the US will not help Indians in their time of need because it is the right thing to do, they — we — should do it because it is the self-interested thing to do. As my colleague Ido Vock noted, the Serum Institute of India, a pharmaceutical company based in Maharashtra, is meant to produce a bulk of doses for the World Health Organisation’s vaccine-sharing scheme, Covax. The government has banned the export of most doses, leaving other parts of the world, and particularly the global south, without expected vaccine doses.

What’s more, as the virus circulates and mutates, new variants emerge, at least one of which — B1.617 — may be more contagious than other strands. Studies show that, while vaccines will still work against B1.617, they could be less effective. To think, after the past two years, that this will remain in India, or an Indian problem, is self-delusion.

Morality should be enough of a reason to help India and getting the pandemic globally under control should be enough of a reason to help India, but if they are not, there is also geopolitics. Last week, I wrote about how the US is hoping to work with India to counter China. For one thing, that will be more difficult if India is consumed with the pandemic. But for another, in that piece I noted that there is a lack of historic trust and strategic empathy in India toward the US that could test the relationship, even if India understands it needs to work together with the US on China.

[See also: Can the United States work with India to counter China?]

The United States can prove itself to be the partner it claims it wants to be to India by helping it in its time of need. People will remember that.

Or, alternatively, it can horde vaccines and intellectual property and in effect leave people to die. But more than any maritime exercise or multilateral meeting, the US should expect people to remember that, too.

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