After vaccine nationalism, are India and the developing world suffering vaccine racism?
This week, the UK is easing restrictions for travellers from a number of countries, who will not have to undergo mandatory quarantines, if they have taken a recognised vaccine. Indian-made Covishield, an Astrazeneca variant is on the list of approved vaccines after a major protest by India but India itself is not yet on the list of countries that will be given the exemption. Simply put, if you have been vaccinated in India, you will have to quarantine for 10 days and test negative twice in order to be allowed out in the UK. This is indeed a long way from January this year, when PM Boris Johnson and PM Modi were expected to announce a vaccine partnership using Indian manufacture and British expertise to produce vaccines for the world.
At the UN, PM Modi said he was proud of India’s vaccines: DNA, MRNA, and soon a nasal vaccine.
The British rule has been taken up by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar with his UK counterpart Liz Truss, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said the rules are discriminatory and would incur reciprocal action from India
Why is it discrimination?
You might well ask, every country has its own rules on entry, so why is the UK being accused of discrimination? Let us take a look at the new rules release September 17
1. The UK’s categorisation of red, amber and green countries, which will now be just a red list appears to be arbitrary, and allows travellers from allies like the US, where there are still many covid cases, but not countries in Asia, Africa and South America to enter without quarantines, leading to the question of whether there are political reasons for this
2. The list doesn’t just include approved vaccines, but says they must be taken from a “relevant public health body” in the countries exempted from vaccines. This calls into question whether the UK is now judging public health systems in each country as well
3. In a series of statements, UK High Commissioner to India even said that the problem was not Covishield, the vaccine, but the Cowin vaccine certification process, that led to even more protests.
4. As it became clear that the UK itself has accepted and administered 5 million doses of the Covishield vaccine donated through the international Covax alliance, the UK amended its rules to accept Covishield, raising more questions about the adhoc and political nature of its decision.
Explanations from the UK
– British government first said that it would not accept the Serum Institute of India made Covishield, but then accepted the vaccine and said it was the certification process that is in some doubt.
– After talks between British NHS officials and Indian Cowin officials, they said there were no technical problems with the app, but there was some question on interoperability of databases
– Another problem with the vaccine certificates is that they didn’t carry the Date of Birth of the passenger, which has now been rectified according to WHO guidelines as well. Many countries have raised eyebrows about PM Modi’s photograph on the vaccine document being confusing, but none have done so officially.
– Behind the scenes officials have also raised questions about the authenticity of Indian vaccine data: On single days like Yoga day in June and PM Modi’s birthday in September, the vaccinations registered record spikes that seem out of sync with daily vaccination figures. There is also some concern about fake vaccination certificates, but these are not voiced publicly.
What are the rules in other countries?
US: From November 1, only fully vaccinated travellers. At present, non-citizens who have been in the United Kingdom, European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil or South Africa in the prior 14 days are prevented from entering the U.S., unless they have national interest exceptions- officials, students, journalists etc
Australia: Australia’s borders are currently closed and entry to Australia remains strictly controlled for non-citizens, although PM Morrison has promised to lift many of them in a few weeks, and the latest guidelines accept Covishield as a recognised vaccine
Europe: A majority of Europe Union countries have agreed to accept passengers from India so long as they are vaccinated with Covishield. Covaxin is not accepted. But an EU Green pass for travel worries India as it too could be used to restrict travel from India.
Russia: Russia accepts Indian nationals based on RTPCR tests, but only those that travel on direct flights.
China: Has restricted the entry of all Indians, unless specific exemptions. This includes students, businessmen and even Chinese nationals. Indian Ambassador to China Vikram Misri said this reflected an “unscientific” approach.
Now, when it comes to India’s own policy on vaccines, there have been some contradictions too
1. To begin with, India imposed very strict travel restrictions itself during the lockdown, and many of those rules still exist. Much of the travel still depends on commercial negotiations between the government and those countries to set up what is called an “air travel bubble”
2. The UK has complained that India still discriminates against passengers from UK, South Africa and Brazil, as they have to have to undergo 7 days mandatory home quarantines as well.
3. When it comes to vaccines too, there are some contradictions: India has requested US vaccines to be supplied, but not one has so far been accepted because India wants American manufacturers to sign liability statements or indemnity waivers so as to be allowed to supply vaccines to India.
4. At the Quad summit ,PM Modi announced India would start exporting vaccines, and claimed the plan to export 1 billion J&J vaccines as part of the quad is on track, but didn’t explain how India would get around the indemnity hurdle
5. And the government has frequently changed goalposts- while battling EU restrictions for example, it said countries must accept all nationally issued vaccines and vaccine certificates, like they do with passports, which would include Covishield and Covaxin, but now it seems to be batting only for Covishield acceptance.
6. Much will depend on the WHO’s decision on recognising Covaxin, due next week
What can India do now to stop vaccine racism?
– Push diplomatically with the UK to change its rules: upcoming visits expected by UK FS Truss and UK PM Johnson
– Reciprocal measures targeting specific countries who treat Indians differently
– Necessary to bring its own standards in line- whether it is on the Cowin app, certificate and whether Covaxin will be treated at par with Covishield
– Push for global vaccine standards, acceptance of national or WHO EUL standards.
As with the problem of vaccine nationalism, where each country hoarded vaccines for its own domestic use rather than look at the world more wholistically, something that has meant many countries in Africa have not event crossed 4% vaccination rates, this problem of vaccine racism: acceptance of one vaccine over another really boils down to one problem, that is discrimination and a lack of equality in the world. While the India-UK controversy over vaccine recognition is likely to blow over soon, discrimination will always come up in different ways around the world.
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