Vaccine diplomacy: Resistance to transparency

Last Updated 27 March 2021, 19:18 IST

The first anniversary of the nation-wide Covid-19 lockdown arrived this month with tidings good, bad and ugly. The expansion of the vaccination drive, to cover all people over 45 years of age, is a welcome development. The curtailment of vaccine exports, though, has rung alarm bells in countries that looked to India for supplies. Overnight, India’s vaccine diplomacy has metamorphosed into vaccine nationalism. Apparently, blockages in the essential materials supply chain, thanks to a similar mutation in the respective foreign policies of the developed countries, are to be blamed. There is an ugly side to these developments as well -- lesser and lesser transparency about matters of public policy, despite the RTI Act requiring the government to be more and more open about decisions that affect people’s lives, especially during a public health crisis.

Earlier this year, India shipped millions of doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to countries like Bangladesh, Ghana, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. So far so good, but domestically, the government remains tight-lipped about the details of such export commitments. In December 2020, along with a prominent advocate who campaigns for access to medicines for the underprivileged, this author sought details of the bilateral agreements into which India has entered for vaccine supply. The RTI made the usual rounds of several babus’ desks for two months. The Department of Pharmaceuticals not only denied copies of these agreements but also refused to name the recipient countries, saying that disclosure would prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interests of the State.

Grateful Canadians in Toronto reportedly put-up billboards thanking Prime Minister Modi for the first batch of the million-plus Covid vaccine doses committed. Then, India halted further exports. Apparently, we citizens, do not have the right to know whether taxpayer funds were spent on these and other shipments or if the jabs were sold abroad for profit or the official reasons for halting vaccine exports.

In the same RTI application, we had sought details of Covid vaccine purchase agreements which the central government has entered into with manufacturers and suppliers, for domestic use. The Vaccine Administration Cell of the Union Health Ministry rejected not only this information but also the names of those pharma companies in order to -- you guessed it right -- protect the strategic, scientific and economic interests of the State. It seems, the State has a set of interests diametrically opposed to those of the people it exists to serve.

Later, in another RTI application, this author sought details about the setting up and the working of the Covid pandemic Joint Monitoring Group (JMG). The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), which reportedly chairs the JMG, was requested to proactively disclose on its website a copy of the office order or circular constituting the JMG, its terms of reference, its chairperson and members, its designated Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) and First Appellate Authority, and the dates and minutes of its meetings. According to the World Health Organisation’s factsheet, its country office in India coordinates with the JMG for providing technical support for epidemiological assessment, surveillance, testing, case management, containment and research activities for Covid-19 at all levels of the administration.

DGHS shunted this RTI to the Union Home Ministry and other sections of the Health Ministry. The Home Ministry denied any knowledge of the JMG, though all Empowered Groups set up for combatting the pandemic function under its jurisdiction. The Health Ministry’s CPIOs are passing the RTI from one desk to another claiming they do not hold any information about the JMG.

While vaccines for new viruses might be discovered with some effort, there is no effective antidote yet against the continued assault of deep-rooted sarkari secrecy on the body politic.

The sudden shift from vaccine diplomacy to perceived vaccine nationalism could hurt India’s image and interests, especially if the government does not proactively disclose critical information to both its own citizens and to the world at large. No one will grudge India wanting to first safeguard its own population and then to send vaccine supplies abroad, so long as the government is transparent about why it needs to do so. But opaqueness brings the risk of turning the aspiring, altruistic vishwa-guru (world teacher) into a selfish gaampara-guru (guru of simpletons).

(Published 27 March 2021, 18:56 IST)

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