Speaking at an event in September 2020, I said that Covid-19 presented us with extraordinary challenges. Every facet of our national life was affected by the complexities and difficulties of the situation. I said that how we dealt with these immense difficulties — and whether we were able to transform some of them into opportunities — would influence our future trajectory as a nation.
Eighteen months later, the pandemic may or may not be over. We will not be in a position to definitively arrive at a conclusion on that score for some time. There can, however, be little doubt that India’s massive vaccination drive, unprecedented in scale and scope in epidemiological history, has blunted the deadly edge of the virus for us.
India also undertook significant steps to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic. As Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi noted in his “State of the World” address at the World Economic Forum, “During the corona period, when the world was focusing on interventions like the quantitative easing programme, India paved the way for reforms.”
India ensured food security for over 80 crore people through the pandemic.
Supported by widespread vaccine coverage, gains from reforms and easing of regulations, robust export growth and ramped up capital spending, the Indian economy is expected to witness a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of over 8% in 2022-2023. This would be among the highest in large economies.
The pandemic exacted a toll. Lives and livelihoods have been lost in India and globally. Lockdowns and disruptions have exacted an economic cost. The social and psychological costs, such as the impact on school-going children and the old, will become clearer with time.
When historians look back at this period, they will, at one level, recount the costs and suffering imposed by the pandemic. They will, at another level, describe the geopolitical and geoeconomic consequences of this tremendous shock and its impact on megatrends such as globalisation.
They will also talk about responses. They will talk about how nations responded and how the international community reacted. In India, the pandemic, while posing an unprecedented challenge, evoked an unprecedented whole-of-society and whole-of-government response.
To say that the government was faced with an unforeseen situation is an understatement. The initial response, as it must be to all black swan events, was necessarily ad hoc. There was no institutional memory of dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. There were no policy frameworks or operating procedures that could guide the government in formulating answers to the many difficult questions that arose. However, respond we did. And, as the pandemic persisted, these responses coalesced into a sui generis policy framework and administrative and operational responses.
What were the broad features of this response?
First was the citizen-centric focus. The Vande Bharat Mission brought hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of Indians home by air, land and sea. It was a complex logistical operation that kept India connected to a disrupted and locked-down world.
Second, and one of the most remarkable features of our response, was “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family)” in operation. In its darkest and most dire moments, India never forgot that it belonged to a greater international community. India not only shared in the suffering, but also rose above it. Our leadership gave importance to a forward-looking agenda that made India’s capacities available to the international community. India walked the talk when it came to being a force for good and a responsible international citizen.
While Vande Bharat was underway, India dispatched large quantities of medicines as both humanitarian grants and commercial exports to partner countries. This was followed by Vaccine Maitri, which made vaccines available to many parts of the world. This was also a period in which Indian medical and technical expertise was being deployed through various platforms.
The third major effort related to the procurement of medical products and essential medical supplies. This became one of the greatest challenges faced by us in responding to the pandemic. It was a whole-of-society effort that added civil society and private sector contributions to a whole-of-government effort.
This was parallel to, and also supported, the process of scaling up domestic manufacturing capacity to meet demand and supplement health infrastructure in the country.
We also worked to safeguard critical vaccine supply chains; and facilitated access to vaccines, vaccine technology and vaccine raw material for Indian entities. We expanded the global relevance of India’s vaccine capacity by linking Indian manufacturing, and research and development capacities with markets and global institutions.
The “normal” business of diplomacy did not pause due to the pandemic. We adapted rapidly to a new world of digital and virtual diplomacy. A new type of hybrid diplomacy has emerged in which the virtual combines with the personal.
The pandemic was not just a health care and economic shock. It is a significant geopolitical event. Among other things, it established that crises of this nature require more international cooperation, not less.
India took several steps that placed it at the forefront of global efforts to combat Covid-19. We joined and catalysed several diplomatic initiatives to deal with various aspects of the pandemic. We worked through, and with, multilateral and plurilateral platforms such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), G20, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). We worked with our Quad partners on several pandemic-related activities. India also supported organisations such as GAVI: The vaccine alliance.
It is obvious that we coped, and then, adapted. Our ability to respond to crises and deal with the unexpected was tested to the utmost. India rose to the challenge of the pandemic.
This is not the last crisis we will face. We have created structures that can surge capacities to deal with future crises.
The leadership provided by the PM as we dealt with the challenges of the pandemic has been inspirational. It was a privilege to have been a part of this effort.
Harsh Vardhan Shringla is the foreign secretary, Government of India
The views expressed are personal