India relies on health diplomacy to expand its presence in Africa

As COVID-19 continues to rage across Africa and developed countries consistently withhold vaccines from low-income countries, India is using health diplomacy as a way to tighten its grip on the African continent and consolidate its position as a world power.

More than a year after the onset of the world’s most devastating health crisis, and as developed countries advance vaccine nationalism at the expense of hundreds of low-income countries (the majority of which are in Africa), the India, recognized as the world’s pharmacy, is changing tack by devoting its medical supplies to the African continent either in the form of gifts or at subsidized rates.

Beyond the gesture, analysts predict that this health diplomacy is a strategy used by India to gain a foothold on the continent, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has given it an ideal opportunity to do so.

Historical links

Indo-African relations date back to colonial times when the two regions struggled against their oppression by colonial rulers.

When India gained independence, it made its voice heard at the United Nations by pushing for the decolonization of Africa. Even as it struggled to build itself after colonialism, India was sharing its meager resources with Africa through South-South cooperation.

India has also been actively involved in supporting South Africans’ struggle against apartheid.

This cooperation has been cultivated over the decades, which has seen India’s total trade with Africa grow from $ 6 billion in 2003 to $ 76.9 billion in 2018. India is currently the third largest. Africa’s trading partner, investing in ICT, agriculture, peacekeeping and manufacturing, among others.

India now boasts of a large diaspora on the African continent, which has made significant economic and humanitarian contributions.

“India knows that it has a strategic position in its relations with Africa. Unlike Western countries which bear the burden of colonialism and China which has been accused of advancing debt trap diplomacy, [India] maintains cordial relations with the continent, ”said Gerald Makau, expert in international relations. “Health diplomacy therefore gives [India] a perfect opportunity to advance its agenda in Africa.

Indian pharmaceutical empire

In the health field, India is now one of the major global players, manufacturing 60% of the world’s vaccines and producing generic drugs at low cost, which it can do due to the low manufacturing costs at home. within its borders. India has made its products affordable, sometimes costing a fraction of what Western pharmaceuticals charge.

It is estimated that 20 percent of India’s pharmaceutical exports, worth $ 17 billion, go to Africa. This includes antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

India has also partnered in health centers with top medical providers who work with their African peers through training, capacity building and opening of specialized health centers across Africa. .

The affordable healthcare system has also enabled millions of Africans to access Indian hospitals to receive treatment for various illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.

Advancing Medical Diplomacy Through COVID-19

The pandemic has, however, given India a powerful platform to expand its power and influence in Africa as it seeks to dilute the growing Chinese influence.

India was one of the first countries to send medicine, essential supplies and food to Africa after the pandemic. Earlier this year, India unveiled the Vaccine Maitri, a campaign bringing India-made vaccines to developing countries, including Africa.

More than three dozen African countries, including South Africa, Morocco and Kenya, have received vaccines as gifts or supplies at subsidized rates at a time when vaccine nationalism and countries hoarding vaccines developed are frustrating global efforts to fight the pandemic.

Through the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, India produced the Covishield vaccine – a variety adapted from the British vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, which saw the country launch an aggressive drive for vaccine equity.

As part of COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable access to vaccines, India signed an agreement last year for the Serum Institute to produce 1 billion CoviShield vaccines. Half of the doses should be distributed in middle and low income countries.

As part of the deal, India agreed to charge only production costs. And although this campaign has faced headwinds with India restricting exports as it battles a wave of COVID-19 cases in the country, it says it remains committed to its fairness plan. in terms of previous vaccines.

Flexing muscles on the world stage

“Aggressive health and vaccine diplomacy comes at a time when India seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council,” Makkau said.

“He recently got the non-permanent seat. That, and the fact that it is hosting the G20 summit in 2023 means that it is positioning itself by declaring that it deserves to be recognized for being an active player in times of global emergency, ”he added. .

Makau further claims that India’s latest diplomatic effort sends a message to China in the wake of recent geopolitical tensions, signaling that it is a powerful force on the world stage.

Image by: Satheesh Sankaran

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