China, India and the Covid emergency

If America can’t do more for India in its hour of need, China should send its Covid teams.

By Duncan Bartlett for China Plus

In my role as the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine, I work closely with a team of people in New Delhi.

Presently, though, I am in London. Travel between the UK and India is banned because of the pandemic.

My Indian colleagues inform me that New Delhi’s health care system is breaking down. They report seeing relatives taking patients to hospital in the backs of cars and on auto-rickshaws, pleading for help.

Hospitals are running short of beds and oxygen. There are even unconfirmed reports that some desperate people have thrown themselves from high buildings, rather than die from Covid.

Relatives mourn near a coffin containing the body of a person who died of COVID-19 in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, April 25, 2021. [Photo: AP]

Relatives mourn near a coffin containing the body of a person who died of COVID-19 in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, April 25, 2021. [Photo: AP]

Apparently, the situation is even worse in many other parts of India, where hospitals are little more than basic concrete buildings. Staff are totally ill-equipped to cope with the catastrophe.

Amid the grief and fear, there is also anger directed towards the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP.

Mr Modi tried to reassure the nation in a televised address on April 20th but his speech lacked details of how his government would turn the situation around. On Twitter, hashtags such as #ModiMadeDisaster and #ModiResign trended.

One big problem is that there have been many gatherings, including political and religious events, where huge crowds have taken to the streets, mostly without masks or social distancing.

But fundamentally, a lack of investment has left India’s health system unable to cope. There has also been a “brain drain”, with many talented Indian doctors and nurses leaving the country in search of more lucrative work abroad, including in the UK.

Covid has prompted discussions about how Asian countries are coping with second and third waves of the pandemic. Many nations face challenges, yet no other country has been as badly affected as India.

Elsewhere, vaccine programmes are beginning to have an impact. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are taking advantage of the availability of Chinese vaccines.

And in China itself, life is more or less back to normal, although there are still occasional lockdowns when pockets of the virus are detected.

This raises a question. Why can’t China and India cooperate more closely in responding to the virus?

The reasons are complex and relate to both history and politics. Sino-Indian rivalry goes back decades and in 1962 they fought a border war. However, recently, Indian social media has been spreading misleading information and this seems to have fuelled animosity towards China.

Nevertheless, there has been an invitation from the Chinese side to “offer support and assistance to the best of our capability if the Indian side informs us of its specific needs.”

And in March 2021, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at the Two Sessions political gathering in Beijing that China and India are each other’s friends and partners, not rivals.

So far, the government in New Delhi is refusing to take up Beijing on its offers of help. Indian ministers declined to join an online meeting about Covid hosted by China this week.

Part of this is because of India’s relationship with the United States. Mr Modi had a call to Joe Biden this week, which a senior administration official described as “a warm and positive.” Mr Biden pledged to send oxygen to India as soon as possible, although there remain enormous practical difficulties in getting supplies to help dying patients.

I thought that the news from America about vaccines was confusing. Mr Biden talked of sending tens of millions of doses abroad but later, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to say there are no doses presently available.

I understand that the US government is bound by an election promise to get vaccines to its own citizens as a priority. But I can also see why in India and elsewhere there is amazement that America can’t do more to help at a time of dire emergency.

The US plan seems to be to send doses of vaccines made by AstraZeneca to India and other developing countries. The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved for domestic use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In Europe, there have been questions about the side effects caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed at Oxford University. Some countries stopped using it because they were worried it caused blood clots. In the US, many people may not trust it, preferring the Pfizer vaccine instead.

My personal view is that the risks associated with AstraZeneca are insignificant compared with the danger of catching the virus. For that reason, I took my first dose of the jab a few weeks ago – and encouraged my wife to do the same.

I very much hope that the AstraZeneca vaccine and other formulas will be offered to people in India soon. It would also make sense for India to engage with China, as a few million doses of a vaccine such as Sinopharm could reduce the risk of further unnecessary deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has described the situation in India as “beyond heartbreaking”. It will become even more horrifying if deaths continue at a time when inoculation programmes are available.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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