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Can India’s Soft Power Gains Be Hurt By China’s Vaccine Diplomacy?

India has curtailed its COVID vaccine exports to neighbours like Nepal. China has stepped in to fill this void.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Nepalese flag (L) and Chinese flag (R) used for representational purposes.
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The Nepalese government has proposed the immunisation against COVID-19, of essential workers, from Wednesday, 7 April 2021, using the vaccines provided by the Chinese.

According to the Nepalese Health Ministry, essential workers those who are working in postal and telephone services, water supply and distribution, hotels and restaurants, public transportation services, electricity supply, storage, and transportation of consumer goods, sales and distribution of medicines — and the health workers who had been missed out in the first phase of the vaccination drive that began on 27 January.

“Those involved in essential services, students studying in China under the Chinese government scholarship, but are currently stuck in Nepal due to the pandemic, Nepali students preparing to leave for China for higher studies, and people involved in cross-border trade between Nepal and China will be inoculated with the Chinese vaccine,” said Jageshwor Gautam, spokesperson for the Health Ministry, in a press conference.

Safety Concerns Over Chinese Vaccine Addressed

Vaccines will be administered from the designated hospitals in Kathmandu Valley. Nepal, which started its vaccination drive after getting donations from India, gave an emergency approval to China’s Sinopharm vaccine. A donation of 800,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from China arrived in Nepal on Monday, 5 April. The spokesperson of the Health Ministry of Nepal said that the drive would resume once the population bracket was targeted.

According to the report published in Lancet, the Sinopharm vaccine is safe and has been well-received. On 9 December 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced efficacy for the Chinese vaccine at 86 percent. According to a Washington Post report, those in UAE haven’t generated enough antibodies after two doses. The UAE was among the first countries to use the Sinopharm vaccine.

However, public health experts in Nepal are optimistic about this vaccine and say there is nothing to fear.

Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Diseases Hospital told local media that there’s no need to be hesitant about this vaccine because so far, there have no complications observed in those who have been inoculated. Experts recommend not mixing vaccines. They suggest that new vaccinations can be initiated from Sinopharm, but for those who have been administered Covishield already, this could be difficult.

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Nepal’s Vaccination Efforts Amid Raging COVID-19 Pandemic

Nepal started its vaccination drives in January 2021 after getting one million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford manufactured by India’s Serum Institute. Nepal had bought an additional two million doses from the institute. Nepalese officials halted the campaign citing a shortage of doses, as half the purchases had been delayed. Only half of the follow-up order has been delivered so far.

There have been 2,50,000 COVID-19 cases and over 3,000 COVID-19-related deaths in Nepal so far. Although the cases and deaths have slowed down in Nepal, it is not over yet.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in neighbouring India, authorities have warned of a possible second outbreak in the Himalayan country. On 5 April, Hridayesh Tripathi, the Nepalese Health Minister, had told the House of Representatives that a second wave may engulf the nation by May if necessary precautions aren’t taken. Now, even as Nepal has gone back to normal life, the COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

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COVID Vaccine ‘Diplomacy’: China Steps In To Fill India’s Shoes. What Implications Could This Have?

As neighbouring countries await the shipment of India’s COVID-19 vaccine, India itself has curtailed the exports of vaccines to prioritise local demand as there is a sharp surge in its coronavirus cases. India has been recording over 60,000 daily cases, which is the highest in five months. As India seems to be running out of doses for its own people, it has now curtailed vaccine exports. This temporary halt in shipment could affect India’s soft power gains.

Now, as India has suspended vaccine exports to neighbouring countries like Nepal, China is trying to fill the void by supplying additional vaccine doses to the Himalayan country.

China is trying to show that they are more generous, and increase their influence in Nepal.

Both India and China have a target to vaccinate large swathes of their own population. China too has a target to immediately vaccinate 40 percent of its population. So, there is pressure to develop more doses at home for both countries.

If India’s deliveries are affected for long, it will affect the country’s image as a vaccine-giving nation, and PM Modi’s efforts towards soft power.

India should ensure that there enough vaccines left for export, while fighting its own battles, if it doesn’t want to hurt its image and efforts.

(Brabim Karki is an author and businessman based in Nepal. He has authored two books: ‘Mayur Albatross’ and ‘Osin Fisher’. He tweets @brabim7. He writes op-eds for various local newspapers in Nepal. His articles have also appeared in international media like The Independent, The Diplomat, The Hill Times, and Asia Pacific Daily. His writings can be accessed here. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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