The coronavirus pandemic has renewed the world’s focus on the deepening crisis in multilateralism and increasing inadequacy of global institutions to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. The pandemic has also intensified competition among major global players to enhance their soft power projection.
Against this backdrop of new global equations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Anil Wadhwa, a veteran diplomat who served as Secretary (East) in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, argued that India has the capacity to galvanize a global response not only as a convener but also as a goods provider. In this wide-ranging conversation with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India and World & India Writes Network, Amb. Wadhwa says that many countries would like to see a multilateral initiative by India succeed in providing direction to joint efforts to combat the pandemic. Wadhwa, who served as India’s Ambassador to Thailand, Italy and Oman, also visualises an important role for the Quad countries in addressing this transnational crisis.
Q & A
Q) In what ways the COVID crisis will impact the current world order?
A) The coronavirus crisis has affected the US and Western Europe more than China and Russia, and will result in destruction of established and dominant economies. The Gulf and other oil-producing countries will feel the pinch of diminished demand for oil and will suffer economically. India, Brazil and other emerging economies will be set back considerably in their development plans.
A devastating economic collapse of potentially historic proportions, leading to social and political turmoil in a number of countries, could result in curtailed connectivity and a reconfiguration of the world order. It is likely that Asia will recover faster than Europe or the USA, but in today’s interconnected and globalized world, unless most countries come to grip with the pandemic and unless a vaccine is discovered, its effects will be felt far and wide and by the entire planet earth.
There is likely to be an attempt by China to position itself as a dominant power post the COVID 19 crisis. This will translate itself through acquisitions of businesses in distressed economies, and an assertion of power to begin with in Asia even as Chinese BRI projects around the world will take a hit. But the US and Europe will fight back, keeping the dominance of the world in balance. Globalization will take a hit, and countries will rethink their trust in global institutions. Self-reliance will regain focus as countries will cut down on vulnerable economic linkages as had been exhibited in this crisis which requires emergency medical supplies and critical drugs, and critical parts to run infrastructure, trucks, trains, planes and automobiles.
Businesses will focus on automation and lowering of production costs, reducing working hours and dependence on large work force should a crisis happen again. Developing countries with large populations and workforce like India will need to find their own balance. There will be lesser dependence on physical presence in offices, giving way to technologies which allow much more work from home, online conduct of business and payments. There will be a consequent drop in business travel change in the seating and travel arrangements adopted by airlines, and governments will start relying more on e-services.
Investment in healthcare and healthcare products will see an increase, as countries will try to ensure that they are equipped to take care of unknown pandemics in future. More start ups will emerge with creative applications. Climate change efforts will receive a boost, as countries and populations realize the difference which can be made if there is a drop in burning of fossil fuels on the environment in which we live. The education system will also see an impact – home schooling programmes and edutech will receive a boost in the short term, but will also become a way of life and emerge as a supplementary stem of education in future.
Countries with a strong technological and scientific base will therefore emerge as the new leaders in knowledge, services and innovation. The inability of the UN to act decisively will lead to greater calls for reform of the system, and could bring about greater accountability in international organizations like the WHO.
Q) What role can India play in mobilizing global cooperation in addressing the pandemic crisis?
A) India, an emerging economy of 1.3 billion people, faces enormous challenges in fighting the coronavirus pandemic but is in an ideal position to take the lead in mobilizing global cooperation in addressing the crisis. Prime Minister Modi, in fact, took the lead quite early in this regard – on March 13, he proposed that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight the novel coronavirus. Prime Minister Modi therefore positioned India as a leader in crafting global responses to the coronavirus even while attempting to combat it at home.
The SAARC video conference was convened on March 15 and with participation from all SAARC states – including Pakistan. PM Modi called for the formation of a rapid response team of medical personnel, and he announced an initial $10 million Indian contribution for a new coronavirus emergency fund. Then, on March 17, PM Modi spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the current G-20 Chair, to broach the possibility of replicating the SAARC video conference, only this time with the G-20 leadership. The online G-20 conference fructified on March 26. At this conference, India called for a reform of international organizations like the WHO in order to ensure that they become more accountable for their actions. Since then, PM Modi has completed consultations with all the GCC countries, and many other world leaders on the way forward in tackling the coronavirus and the cooperation pathways open in this regard.
In future, India can take the lead in pressing bodies like the WHO to take the lead in research of drugs required at affordable process for the developing world. The pandemic requires a global response but multilateralism is under great strain. India has been punching below its weight in the past, but over the last year or so has made its intentions of playing a larger role very clear. This is an opportunity for India to project itself as a responsible and collaborative global player with the capacity to spearhead global cooperation to address shared threats. China has gone on an overdrive to resurrect its image by offering aid to countries in South Asia to fight the pandemic and offering to share information on China’s experience in fighting the disease.
India’s global outreach has been modest, bereft of propaganda and India is quietly trying to make a case of having the capacity to galvanize a global response as a convener but also as a goods provider. India ironically sent 15 tonnes of medical supplies to China when it was still getting hit hard. India has also dispatched doctors to the Maldives and then to Nepal. It delivered 10 tonnes of medical aid to Sri Lanka a few days ago. It has also sent supplies to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. It has considered aid requests from Italy and Iran and even Israel requested Indian masks and other supplies during a call between PM Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu in mid-March. To cap it all, India has relaxed its export restrictions on 24 drugs which are in demand in the other countries of the world, and has allowed a shipment of 29 million tonnes of Hydroxychloroquine, (an anti-malaria and anti osteo arthritis drug but also used as a prophylactic to be administered to health care workers ) to the USA. It has also agreed to ship this drug to Brazil, Germany, UK and other Western European countries. India is poised to spearhead a world collaborative drug research programme, having already expressed its desire to work in collaboration with countries like USA, Australia and Germany as well as WHO in developing a vaccine or Coronavirus.
On February 20, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and commended him for the Alliance for Multilateralism – a German-led forum initiated in 2019 and comprising several dozen countries but conspicuously silent through the Coronavirus crisis. Jaishankar called for the recognition, preservation and protection of multilateralism. Many countries would like to see a multilateral initiative by India succeed and share their efforts precisely because the Chinese presidency has not taken any interest in a discussion on this important topic in the UN Security Council and the UNGA has passed a pedantic resolution which is seen as worthless by most nations. The WHO is discredited, and the world of multilateralism is once again at a cross roads.
Q) What role can the Quad/Indo-pacific play in jointly tackling the pandemic?
A) The Quad countries – USA, India, Japan and Australia — have immense capabilities and resources in fighting disease and pandemics. They have collaborated individually and jointly with Asean in the past in combating disasters and pandemics. The current scenario presents them with an excellent opportunity to take the Quad cooperation forward in a non-controversial and a humanitarian field where they can use their capabilities to help each other.
Firstly, the Quad should formalize an information and intelligence sharing mechanism on the pandemic. Secondly, they should put their scientific resources together to collaborate on a joint research programme for developing a vaccine for the coronavirus at the earliest. They should collaborate in offering field testing of the vaccine on their populations which are quite diverse in nature. India, Australia, and the US are leaders in the field of human trials. All of them have streamlined procedures. Indian, USA, and Japan have extremely well- developed bio-technology and pharmaceutical sectors while Australian universities are renowned for their research. It would be relatively easy for the laboratories in these countries to share the results of the study of the coronavirus genome, track its progress sin their respective countries and share the findings real time.
Thirdly, the Quad should also take the lead in setting up a collaborative mechanism to tackle this crisis jointly with Asean. They could also propose a joint fund for this purpose where the quad countries could contribute equally from the funds they have already set aside as Asean partners on an individual basis. Finally, the Quad can work together in the UN and in the WHO to reform the system of research on drugs, for a reform of its institutions, and for bringing about greater transparency in its functioning.
About The Corona Conversation
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked an unprecedented global crisis and exposed the fragility of international institutions mandated with addressing and mitigating the human tragedy of this magnitude. The death toll is rising every minute even as the world frantically searches for a vaccine that can deliver humanity from this curse. The pandemic is also poised to have significant geopolitical ramifications as the world’s two leading powers trade blame and pundits predict a retreat of globalisation. Currently, there are only overwhelming questions, and no easy answers.
Against the backdrop of a corona-stressed world, India Writes Network and India and the World magazine are pleased to launch an interview series, entitled THE CORONA CONVERSATION, that explores global and diplomatic ramifications of the pandemic with eminent diplomats, experts and thought leaders.
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