By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 1: Though Sri Lankans boast of 90 years of democracy they are yet to imbibe the spirit of the doctrine. While it is the tradition of every democracy to limit the Opposition’s role to constructive criticism, Sri Lankans are an exception to the rule and those who oppose the government believe that their sole role is to criticize every move or decision – good or bad.
Since Independence, every government has faced such undue and unreasonable criticisms from the Opposition. There is a very vociferous section that could find enough arguments to attack their opponents on any issue.
Those who hate India, are quite uncomfortable about the fact that the greatest sage to trod the earth, Gautama Buddha attained Enlightenment, lived, preached the Buddha Dhamma and finally attained Mahaparinibbana in India. Except Buddhism, everything from India is bad for the India-baiters. Similarly, those who hate the United States are very reluctant to even to acknowledged that Col. Henry Steel Olcott, the great Buddhist revivalist and founder of Buddhist school system in Sri Lanka was an American. Whatever the US gives is bad for them.
Aid and grants received under PL420 Plan, soft loans for the Mahaweli hydro- electricity schemes and infrastructure development assistance from various countries, UK, US, Canada, India and China and other countries were seen as good or bad, depending on preconceived notions.
The current criticism of the most generous and much-needed gift from India, COVISHIELD vaccines, was also part of the narrow political agenda of a section of Lankan society.
India began vaccinating its population against COVID-19 coronavirus last month using its indigenously manufactured Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. Before the month ended, India made a magnanimous offer of the vaccine to its South Asian neighbors, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. After having sent consignments of testing kits, personal protection equipment, respirators, and medicines to these neighbors to help them fight the COVID-19 pandemic, India reached out to them with vaccine diplomacy.
This generous gesture was in keeping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy. The first consignment of 500,000 doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay on Thursday (28 January) and the process of vaccination commenced the following day.
President Rajapaksa said on Twitter: “Received 500,000 #COVID-19 vaccines provided by #peopleofindia at #BIA today (28). Thank you! PM Shri @narendramodi& #peopleofindia for the generosity shown towards #PeopleofSriLanka at this time of need.”
As Senior Adviser to the President, Lalith Weeratunga said, the supply of Indian vaccine has helped Sri Lanka begin its fight against the unseen enemy, COVID-19 pandemic.
First consignment as a donation
Sri Lanka and other neighbors received the first consignment as a donation. India will donate the vaccine to key Indian Ocean partners, Mauritius and Seychelles and Afghanistan too when the latter complete regulatory clearance procedures. At the same time, India has also set in motion commercial supply of vaccines to several countries, including Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, and Morocco.
Although some analysts said that the aim vaccine gifting Maitri (Vaccine of Compassion) was to polish its global image and earn it goodwill, especially in South Asia where it is often criticized for its Big Brotherly behaviour. But neighboring governments, including Sri Lanka, have expressed gratitude. Even Nepal, a country which had been sparring with India in recent months, has expressed gratitude. India’s gesture was applauded by the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO).
India’s generous gesture stands in sharp contrast to several rich countries, who were accused by the WHO Chief of attempting to grab the vaccines and even hoarding vaccine supplies. According to WHO, a handful of rich countries account for just 16 per cent of the world’s population, have cornered 60 per cent of the vaccines bought globally.
Many critics try to project India’s free gift of vaccine was a bait to get a foot-hold in the Eastern Terminal of Colombo Port. Although, both these issues were discussed during the recent visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmaniam Jaishankar, they were discussed as separate topics and not as an interrelated barter. Furthermore, the critics who level this unreasonable accusation should understand that India did not supply the vaccine only to Sri Lanka, but to all the neighbors, except Pakistan for obvious reasons.
India, one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world, already supplies around 60 per cent of the global requirement of DPT, BCG, and measles vaccines. Furthermore, Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has shown relatively less side-effects, costs less and is easier to store and transport.
Global demand for its COVID-19 vaccines is soaring with some 90 countries are entering into pacts for its procurement. The European Union has already accused India for not immediately supplying the agreed quantity of vaccines to Europe. Under these circumstances, India’s decision, to supply the first stock of the vaccine to neighboring countries, is indeed a highly laudable gesture.
While there is some truth in the Western adage, ‘There is no free lunch’, it is very unfair to label it with hidden motives and agendas without any substantial proof. It is true that India, with this gesture to help neighboring Governments at a time when they are battling serious public health crises hopes to enhance its image in South Asia and elsewhere. However, a few Indian analysts have warned that the positive impact of such goodwill gestures is transient. Gratitude does not last long in relations between countries.
Indian foreign policy analyst Manoj Joshi predicts that India’s vaccine diplomacy is unlikely by itself to change its relations with its neighbors overnight. “But it is a step in the right direction and, if followed up with less arrogant policies towards its neighbors, it could contribute to their perceiving New Delhi as a gentler giant,” the analyst said and added that it could blunt the propaganda of the anti-India forces in its neighborhood.
To cover vulnerable sections of the population, Sri Lanka requires further supplies of vaccines. Weeratunga said that the Treasury has already set aside funds to purchase the first consignment of the vaccine. The Government has initiated discussions with the World Bank to obtain a soft loan worth Rs 10 billion to purchase vaccines against COVID-19. It is also looking at the possibility of obtaining funding from the Asian Development Bank and the European Union for this purpose.
Sri Lanka joined the COVAX facility last year and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) has accredited the nation, making it eligible to receive the vaccines through the program. India’s gift has given Sri Lanka a chance to commence the process before many other countries.