From the ‘pharmacy of the world’ to the ‘epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic’, India’s fall has been swift and dramatic. Harrowing images from India and op-eds critical of India are sweeping newspapers across the world as the second wave of the pandemic unfolds.
During the first wave in 2020, India was better off than countries such as Italy, the United States, and Brazil. India’s handling of the pandemic in 2020 won praise and was a pleasant surprise to many who worried about the weak state of India’s health infrastructure and its huge population, which seemed to be a perfect recipe for disaster.
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However, thanks partly to a strict lockdown and perhaps because of its demographic advantage, India managed much better than even developed countries. In fact, India was seen as a beacon of hope, a model for the rest of the developing world to emulate. India played true to its strength as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, sending medicines and vaccines to many countries, thus winning goodwill and praise globally.
However, the second wave of the pandemic in 2021 has caught India unawares. The epic proportion of the tragedy has affected India’s international reputation at several levels.
First, the second wave has exposed the limitations of our health infrastructure (the result of years of inadequate allocation by successive governments), raising questions about the domestic capabilities of the ‘aspiring great power’. India spends just over 1 percent of its GDP on public health, a far cry from the 16 percent spent by the US and 10 percent by Japan, Canada, France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Second, questions are being asked about the advisability of sending vaccines and medicines abroad without ensuring domestic supplies first.
Third, with India putting restrictions on exports of vaccines and medicines, other countries may face shortfalls in their supplies and could accuse India of being an undependable supplier. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rather un-empathetic statement that the European Union ‘allowed’ India to become such a large pharmaceutical producer and her concern about what could happen if supplies do not reach the West reflects the unhappiness of countries which have relied on Indian supplies.
Fourth, situations like this can build or destroy a country’s reputation. Remember the global shock and subsequent loss of soft power for the US when the first wave showed us how its health infrastructure was in a shambles. Similarly, in India’s case, the admiration for how it handled the first wave will dissipate now and India will be judged for its lack of national capacity to deal with this calamity. Neighbours such as Bangladesh have closed their borders and Western countries have issued advisories against visiting India, indicating their lack of confidence in India stemming the pandemic quickly.
Fifth, India’s reputation as a free-wheeling democracy could be affected by the government’s order for removal of content critical of its handling of the pandemic on social media and the India’s High Commission’s angry response to an article in The Australian newspaper. Though this order might have been issued to prevent panic from spreading, it will have implications for how the rest of the world views us. The statement by the White House Spokesman Jen Psaki that this “certainly wouldn't be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world” says as much.
Finally, the longest-term damage to India’s reputation will depend on how badly the pandemic affects India’s economy and its potential to provide basic needs to its populace. If it fails to do this, it could say goodbye to its dreams of becoming the next great power. India has already had to accept assistance from abroad despite its 2004 policy of not taking such help.
But some positives amidst all this. Perhaps, it is India’s generosity which has led to the outpouring of help from so many countries with leaders like the US President Joe Biden tweeting that “India was there for us, and we will be there for them” recalling India’s generosity to the US when it was facing a crisis. Ordinary Indians have come together to help each other as the system fails, in a great show of humanity. Our healthcare workers have stepped up to the occasion, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
The pandemic should teach India a valuable lesson: the absolute necessity to prioritise its needs. The time has come for the classic ‘guns versus butter’ debate to be reframed as a ‘hospitals/medicines versus guns’ debate.