August 16, 2020

How Not To Learn from Each Other

ON August 7, a virtual meeting was held between the foreign ministers of India, Brazil, Israel, South Korea, Australia and the United States. This meeting was, by all standards, a curious one.

Foreign minister, Jaishankar tweeted, “Continued our conversation on the Corona challenge, always good to learn from each other”. But the composition of the meeting and the countries represented by the foreign ministers raises many questions.

The lineup of the countries itself is inexplicable if the agenda was sharing experiences on tackling the Covid-19 crisis and the way forward. Except for South Korea, which has an excellent record in tackling the virus, none of the other countries have distinguished themselves in anyway in the matter. In fact, the United States and Brazil have set the worst example of how the pandemic is to be dealt with.

This grouping of foreign ministers along with Jaishankar was not decided by the Indian government. The participants of the meeting were chosen by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state. Three of the countries – United States, India and Australia – belong to the quadrilateral alliance; Israel and South Korea are allies of the United States and Brazil’s president is the closest partner and ideological soul-mate of President Trump in South America.

The composition and purpose of the meeting become clear when it is put in the context of the telephone conversation which Jaishankar and Pompeo had a day previous to the meeting. According to a state department spokesman, there was a discussion on multilateral and bilateral cooperation on issues of international concern, including efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation in the Indo-Pacific region and the quadrilateral coalition.

The virtual meeting was, therefore, sponsored by the United States with its close allies and partners. It was more to do with advancing the United States’ agenda against China as spelt out through the Indo-Pacific strategy and the quadrilateral alliance. The discussion on the Covid-19 challenge was only a peg because what can India have learnt from the experience of the United States and Brazil in tackling the pandemic? Together they account for 40 per cent of all Covid cases and 36 per cent of all deaths in the world. The way President Trump has handled the Covid virus pandemic in the United States has been bizarre and scandalous. From denying it poses a serious threat to public health to recommending drinking of disinfectant to prevent the virus infection, the disaster that has struck the United States is being viewed with horror and pity around the world.

Bill Gates has recently stated that it is “mind blowing” that the US government has not improved Covid-19 testing and bemoaned, “You’re paying billions of dollars in this very inequitable way to get the most worthless test results of any country in the world. … No other country has this testing insanity”.

Bolsonaro in Brazil has outdone his mentor in the US. After dismissing the Covid-19 as nothing more than a “little cold”, he emulated Trump’s example by advocating hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a miracle drug to cure the disease. HCQ is an anti- malarial drug which proved to be worthless and even harmful to Covid patients when it was tested in trials.

It is interesting that both countries approached India to export HCQ to them. In April, Trump had demanded that India relax the ban on export of HCQ and fulfill America’s order for the same. Trump warned its close ally, India, that the US may retaliate if it did not do so. Prime Minister Modi, immediately responded and allowed the export of the drug to the United States. This was followed by Bolsonaro writing to Modi requesting that HCQ be supplied to Brazil. Modi of course complied, especially since Bolsonaro had referred to the Ramayana in his letter. 530 kilograms of raw-material to make the drug was dispatched to Brazil. Another five million tablets were offered on a commercial basis.

Both the US and Brazilian governments pushed for the use of HCQ as a prophylactic to be taken by the people to prevent the Covid-19 infection despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump himself boasted that he took the tablet for 14 days. Bolsonaro was shown on television popping a pill into his mouth. Even after he got infected with the virus, he continued to champion the drug. We do not know if Modi has used it as a prophylactic.

How such quackery has affected the lives of thousands in Brazil and America is still to be assessed. But the thread of anti-scientific irrationalism binds all the three authoritarian far-right leaders of the United States, Brazil and India – which are ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 respectively in terms of the largest number of corona positive cases in the world. It is truly astounding and reflective of its subordinate status that the Modi government looks to the US to provide the lead internationally in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the Modi government was serious about learning from the experience of other countries about Covid-19, it could have had a meeting with German government authorities who have the best record in Europe in tackling the disease; it could have discussed with Vietnam which has an exemplary record in Asia. Before the Galwan clash, it could have talked to the Chinese government which has the widest experience and knowledge in successfully tackling the coronavirus. But even before the standoff in Ladakh, Jaishankar preferred to have parleys with Pompeo, who represents a regime which has done everything to wreck the global response to the pandemic. The walking out of the World Health Organisation being just one instance.

The Modi government still needs to learn a lot about how to tackle the pandemic in India. The daily increase in cases is now the highest in the world, so is the daily death toll. Self-satisfied pronouncements that the fatality rate is low and the recovery rate is increasing do not, in any way, confront the continuing spread of the infection and the suffering that it is causing.

(August 12, 2020)