UK Law on Vaccinated Indians Shows Its ‘Imperial’ Thinking
Though 88% of vaccinated Indians have received an equivalent of AstraZeneca, the UK doesn’t recognise it.
Imperial attitudes never die; they just fade away. In some areas, though, they seem to fade more slowly than in others. The new travel-related regulations announced by the United Kingdom (UK) have predictably invoked outrage in India, directed particularly at the shockingly discriminatory rules surrounding the recognition of the vaccination status of incoming travellers. I myself have pulled out of two invitations from the United Kingdom—the first from the Cambridge Union, the student-led debating society at Cambridge University, and the second from my publishers for events related to the launch of the British edition of my latest book, ‘The Battle of Belonging’ (published there as ‘The Struggle for India’s Soul’).
A Roadblock for Indians
My reasons are simple. Based on the rules that will come into effect from 4 October, the UK will allow fully vaccinated travellers entry without the current requirement of mandatory quarantine for 10 days (which includes RT-PCR tests to be undertaken on Day 2 and Day 8). While this was a welcome announcement on paper and offered relief to many across the world waiting anxiously for international travel to the UK to resume, Indians were shocked to realise that the list of countries whose vaccines would be recognised under the new rules does not include India. This despite the fact that over 88% of Indians who have been administered vaccines so far have taken Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield, the exact equivalent of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine recognised by the United Kingdom. Indeed, Pune’s SII shipped 5 million vaccines to the UK in March 2021, which presumably were jabbed into British arms after being repackaged as AstraZeneca.
The universal condemnation in India of these new rules is understandable. First, on principle: why should Indians be deemed to be lesser breeds than others? It is deeply offensive that fully vaccinated Indians have to quarantine, while others who may have taken the same vaccine in other countries, do not. Second, our objections are also grounded in practical concerns.
Those of us in India seeking to travel to the United Kingdom do not have the luxury of time to be able to dedicate ten days of a visit to quarantine and self-isolation.
Third, costs are another important factor that reinforce the current outrage. Aside from the significant additional accommodation costs that will be incurred by travellers who have no choice but to stay in a hotel for that additional period, the financial implications of testing are not minor either. Those seeking to take a test on Day 5 of quarantine, in order to be released early, would have to pay close to ₹25,000 (compared to UK citizens travelling to India, who would have to pay a tenth of that figure for three RT-PCR tests).
India's 'Dodgy Documentation'
Ultimately, with their recent announcements, the UK has done its image in India a profound disservice by failing to offer clarity on the question at the heart of the issue. Why do the new rules, which accommodate vaccines from 17 additional countries, not recognise India’s Covishield, when in form and substance it is the exact equivalent of the Oxford AstraZeneca and the European Union’s Vaxzevria (which are recognised under the new rules)? Let us not forget that Covishield has already secured approval in the US and the European Union, as well as from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Unofficially, sources in the loop have suggested to me that the real issue is not of the vaccines but certification. “India’s documentation is dodgy,” said one, explaining that the UK could not trust whether a vaccination certificate produced by an Indian traveller was genuine or not.
One individual even went to the extent of suggesting that in a country where the Prime Minister himself could be accused of falsifying his degree certificate, it was natural for the British government to be wary.
But these arguments do not accommodate the actual nature of our vaccine certificates, which carry QR codes that can be verified. There may be other ways of confirming tangible evidence of the authenticity of someone’s vaccination status. Making it such a stumbling block reeks of bad faith.
A Bias Against the 'Third World'?
At the same time, I would not go so far as to term the new rules as indicative of “vaccine racism”, as some have suggested. Britain has made much progress since the racist colonial days and is today a vibrant multicultural and multiracial society, with its Home and Finance Ministers being individuals of Indian origin (and with a Health Secretary of Pakistani descent).
Still, there is no denying that this episode reflects certain regressive and discriminatory “imperial” attitudes that persist within Britain when it comes to “the Third World” in general and India in particular.
Ultimately, the fundamental principle of relations between two sovereign nations is reciprocity. Our Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, is reported to have made it clear to his British counterpart, Liz Truss, that this matter should be resolved expeditiously so that India is not obliged to treat Britons the same way. At a time when post-Brexit Britain is seeking closer trade and economic relations with India, the vaccine regulations send a very odd message indeed. Scrapping them quickly would be the right thing for Britain to do, in the interests of the people of our two countries – and in the British government’s own interest.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’ (Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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