India courts Africa with vaccine ‘friendship’, but is it sustainable?

Covid vaccines in Kisumu

Workers at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) transfer cartons containing Covid-19 vaccines doses into a cold storage facility at the organisation's warehouse in Kisumu County on March 4, 2021.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Nairobi was the 10 African capital to receive the delivery and, according to officials at the Indian External Affairs ministry, more African countries could receive the “gift” of vaccines before end of this month.

When an Indian Air flight touched down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi with 100,000 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine last Wednesday, New Delhi marked 70 such deliveries across the world.

Nairobi was the 10 African capital to receive the delivery and, according to officials at the Indian External Affairs ministry, more African countries could receive the “gift” of vaccines before end of this month.

Dr Virander Paul, India’s High Commissioner to Kenya, said the 100,000 doses were a “gesture of friendship”, and that the shipment indicated India’s desire to support allies in the common fight against Covid-19.

“India has viewed the Covid-19 pandemic as a global health crisis with far reaching implications,” he said on Wednesday.

“[It] has used its advanced pharmaceutical and manufacturing capacities to promote PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), medicines and respirators to other nations as assistance in the fight against Covid-19.”

World’s ‘pharmacy

That India was already the world’s ‘pharmacy’ was not in question.

According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), India manufactures six in every 10 vaccines consumed in the world today and at least a fifth of all medicines used across the globe.

Africa buys a third of its medicines from India, according to an aggregation of data by the Brookings Institute, profiting from India’s ability to manufacture generic drugs affordable on the continent.

Good standing

India has acknowledged banking on its historic ties with Africa, a common language and affordable pharmaceutical products sustainable the market and relations with the continent. Then Covid-19 came.

In a statement last week, the country’s External Affairs ministry said, “In the recent past, when the world needed medicines, India did whatever it could to provide them.

“Our scientists worked in quick time to come out with vaccines. And now, India is humbled that vaccines made in India are going around the world.”

It is not just humility, however, as the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru intended when he established the infrastructure for India’s pharmaceutical dominance.

Dr Shash Tharoor, an Indian diplomat and academic, argued that altruism has been tempered with the realisation medical supplies could earn India a good geopolitical standing.

India, in the pandemic season, launched what it called ‘Vaccine Maitri’ or ‘Vaccine Friendship’ that has seen it donate Covid-19 vaccines to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In Africa, it has sent batches to Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Ghana, Cape Verde and South Africa and promised to deliver more.

Big gamble

Some Indian analysts say the project to adopt vaccines for India’s diplomacy began last year when authorities allowed the Serum Institute of India to gamble on producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine before the World Health Organization (WHO) could authorise its emergency use.

“India’s gifting of vaccine is serving to polish its global image and earn it goodwill, especially in South Asia where it is often criticized for its ‘big brother” behavior,” argued Indian analyst Sudha Ramachandran.

“Importantly, Vaccine Maitri will serve as a powerful soft power tool to counter China’s considerable influence in South Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Vaccine diplomacy is a follow-up effort to win hearts, minds and influence especially in the developing world.”

China and Russia have equally used vaccines to improve relations. But India’s urgent deliveries have recently helped mend its own relations with neighbours Bangladesh and Maldives, providing policy makers with a hint of just how it could be useful in Africa.

In Africa, India which is a member of the Covax facility, has been the source of the vaccines already delivered to countries under the programme, where it pledged 1.1 billion doses, according to the WHO.

India’s delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine beat other early vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, which have been largely locked in richer countries.

The African Union said it will need 270 million doses from the Serum Institute of India, meaning Africa is likely to see more planeloads of deliveries in the coming months.

‘Fruit of the future’

But can India sustain its latest goodwill in Africa?

Dr Tharoor, argues the vaccine diplomacy could be a fruit of the future, even though India currently lags behind China in influence on the continent.

“At a time when most richer countries are criticised for hoarding vaccine doses, India stands out for having sent 33 million to poorer countries, with millions more in the pipeline,” he said this week.

“India is using the country’s capacity in this sector subtly to advertise an alternative to China’s economic and geopolitical dominance. While China has been secretive in releasing data about its vaccines, leading to controversies about their efficacy, India organised trips for foreign ambassadors to visit pharmaceutical factories in Pune and Hyderabad.”

There is more to the 'vaccine politics', however.

India had sided with South Africa and more than 50 other countries in Africa and Asia to demand the lifting of intellectual property restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines, which would have allowed localised manufacturing of doses until the world attained sufficient immunity.

This week, the India-South Africa proposal was defeated at the World Trade Organization with the US, European Union and the UK siding with Big Pharma.

That may have given India an opportunity to show Africa it sides with it.

Policy evolving

But India could require more.

According to Ms Ramachandran, the country should leverage on its tradition of giving Africa the flexibility of choosing areas of cooperation even in the area of financial aid.

“The sense one gets is that India’s policy towards Africa is still evolving even as the number of Indian diplomatic missions on that continent expand. This may not be a bad thing but needs to be carefully thought through,” she said.

“There’s no gain saying that east or southern Africa, or even Nigeria in West Africa, merit far greater attention from India than other African states. That decision may take some time as India’s Africa policy matures.”


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