India’s vaccine gift to UN peacekeepers: Helping humanity fight pandemic

India’s initiative in supplying vaccines to UN peacekeeping forces and also to a large number of poor countries is a masterstroke of Narendra Modi’s government in vaccine diplomacy, writes Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor 

Rajendra Shende Mar 31, 2021
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We had forgotten them in pandemic pandemonium. But make no mistake they are also frontline workers. The UN peacekeeping forces provide the most needed global security services. In 2020, they provided security and stability so that the governments, businesses, and NGOs focus on the efforts to contain and address the planetary crisis – the COVD19 pandemic. 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new type of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, a pandemic. Within a fortnight, on March 23, 2020, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent appeal for a global ceasefire for armed conflicts in all corners of the world to enable the countries to focus on the true fight - defeating COVID-19. At that time globally more than 40 armed conflicts were causing the drain on resources and loss of lives. 

Eleven countries locked in long-term conflicts responded to the UN call for a worldwide ceasefire. Since March 2020, about 180 countries, the Security Council, regional organizations, civil society groups, peace advocates, and millions of global citizens have endorsed the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call.  Guterres said, “to silence the guns, we must raise the voices for peace.” 

The UN repeated the same call at the beginning of the 75th UN General Assembly session in September 2020. Silencing the guns can not only support the fight against COVID-19 but also create opportunities for providing life-saving aid, open windows for diplomacy, and bring hope to people suffering in conflict zones that are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. 

Indian vaccine for UN peacekeepers

But there is a big gap between ‘endorsing the call’ and ‘implementation on the ground.’ There are enormous difficulties in implementing the ceasefire as conflicts have festered for years, and the distrust among the countries is deep. The number of conflicts has continued and the UN peacekeeping forces, provided to the UN by the countries like Bangladesh and India continued their hard work. These real frontline workers - peacekeeping forces - continued to get exposed to COVID-19 in the most grueling circumstances. 

During the UN Security Council’s open debate on the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020) on the cessation of hostilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made a striking offer. “Keeping in mind the UN Peacekeepers who operate in such difficult circumstances, India would like to announce a gift of 200,000 vaccine doses for them." Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture,  Jaishankar had said “Do your work, with the welfare of others always in mind." 

The 200,000 COVID-19 doses essentially mean that it will be possible to administer the required double doses of the vaccines to all UN peacekeepers across missions. According to UN Peacekeeping, as of January 31, 2021, a total of 85,782 personnel are serving in 12 major peacekeeping operations across the world-led by the Department of Peace Operations of the UN. 
 
A total of 121 nations are contributing to the uniformed personnel to the UN peacekeeping missions. India is traditionally among the largest troop-contributing countries to peacekeeping missions. 

The 200,000 doses being manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India, in collaboration with Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca departed Mumbai via Qatar Airways on March 27. The shipment headed to Copenhagen, where it will be safely stored in a facility, re-packaged, and quickly distributed to peacekeeping missions for the peacekeepers.

Guterres had said that he is “extremely grateful" for the gift of 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for UN peacekeepers announced by India, which is known as the world's pharma hub.

India’s Vaccine Maîtri

Under India’s Vaccine Maitri (vaccine friendship) initiative, vaccines are being airlifted to nations across the world - from India’s immediate neighbours to distant countries in Latin America and Africa. More than 58 million - Made in India coronavirus vaccine doses have been provided to about 70 countries in recent weeks.

India’s initiative in supplying vaccines to UN peacekeeping-forces and also to a large number of poor countries is a masterstroke of Narendra Modi’s government in vaccine diplomacy. There have been unfortunate inequality in the distribution of vaccines and a sad trend has been seen in hoarding the vaccines. Guterres was more vocal and direct on February 17 when he addressed the high-level meeting of the UN Security Council. He sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. 

Guterres lamented that 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine.  That clearly demonstrated how selfish and nationalistic the world leaders would be in the case of another planetary-scale chaos, or climate crisis.

He demanded a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible. However, it sounds like a dream considering self-centered rich countries. “Vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community,” was his candid remark. 

One can criticize the WHO for its delay in declaring the COVID-19 pandemic or not announcing the source of coronavirus, but no one can find fault with its COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people. 

COVAX - global collaboration

COVAX is one of the three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the pandemic. It is a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.  Leaving large sections of the world unattended would provide an opportunity for the virus to spread faster. The virus and its later mutated generations do not recognise the national boundaries and do not need visas to enter rich countries. American business magnate, software developer, and philanthropist Bill Gates has rightly supported the WHO’s statement that “with a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe unless everyone is safe.” 

COVAX has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time the vaccine shots were rolled out in rich countries. Yet another goal of finances needed for COVAX of $5 billion in 2021 is likely to be missed in this chaos of ‘vaccine nationalism.’ In addition the ACT (Access to COVID-19 Tools) Accelerator's initial needs for 2020-2021 were $38.1 billion.  

The pledge till March 2021 has reduced the gap in funding to $22.9 billion. The next few months of April-May-2021 will be critical for the global COVID-19 response. Further commitments are needed to fully fund the work of the ACT-Accelerator and to enable the delivery of more than 2 billion doses of vaccine; medical oxygen and millions of treatment doses and over 900 million diagnostic tests.

The new rapidly emerging area of research and development would be the speed and type of mutations of SARS-CoV-2. Hence further funding is needed, as per the WHO. The global response to such needs is still lukewarm. 

It is evident that PM Modi is fulfilling the promise made to the UN that his country’s vaccine production capacity would be made available globally to fight the COVID-19 crisis. The pledge stands out and serves as an example to other nations. The United Nations has gone on record with the statement, “This important donation (by India) will allow us to ensure that UN peacekeepers are able to remain healthy and deliver in some of the most difficult environments in the world without relying on on already stretched national health systems or ongoing COVAX efforts." 

Modi, who invariably spends festival of Diwali with India’s armed forces that protect the nation in the most challenging terrain, knows well that ‘protecting those who protect us’ is never ever been so important. Such action strengthens his oft repetition of the words of the Upanishad ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ - the world is one family.

(The writer is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP. The views are personal. www.rajendrashende.com/www.rajendrashende.blog)

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