Nepal Urgently Needs Vaccines

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A Covid-19 patient breathes with the help of medical oxygen as she arrives outside an emergency ward at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 13. Photo: AFP

As the Nepal government scrambles to get vaccine shots amid a surge in Covid-19 in the Himalayan country of more than 28 million, China has announced that it will provide 1 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to Nepal in grant assistance. China appears to make a move when India stopped vaccine export to Nepal citing its growing domestic demand.

China’s ambassador Hou Yanqi said on Twitter on Wednesday that the announcement to provide the vaccines was made during a telephone conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari.

The surge in infections is creating bigger cracks in Nepal’s fragile health system, pushing it to the brink. Hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and do not have sufficient ventilators, oxygen. Nepal is now seeing more infections per million than its neighbor India, with about 9,000 new daily cases, up from fewer than 200 in the first week of April. Nepal has vaccinated 1.9 million people since it launched a vaccination campaign in January – less than 7 percent of the total population.

China and India have long jostle for influence in Nepal. Wedged between two warring giants, Nepal has always been of strategic importance that belies its size.  Both nations are giving away vaccines to Nepal as a part of diplomatic efforts to strengthen their ties with the country.

Nepal has been relying on India for vaccines, oxygen, and other medical supplies. Nepal launched its vaccination drive in January with the Covishield vaccines provided by India.  It ordered two million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from its neighbor earlier in the year, but after supplying 1 million doses in February, India’s pandemic struggles put a stop to exports of supplies and vaccine doses. Nepal also received 8,00,000 doses of vaccines from China and continued its vaccination drive. There were no supplies after that.

Now, China has stepped in trying to fill the void by supplying additional doses when the Nepali authorities are struggling to get the vaccines. COVAX, the country’s immediate hope for vaccines, has already communicated to the Nepal government that it won’t be able to provide vaccines before next year. COVAX has committed to providing enough vaccines to vaccinate 20 percent of its population.

In a world of vaccine diplomacy, China’s greatest benefit in diplomacy has been its speed. As South Asian countries like Nepal do not have quick access to Western vaccines, China can reap soft power in these nations.

While India is struggling with its own outbreak, China wants to be seen as a global power and it isn’t possible without being a leader of Asia. It seems China wants to create a South Asian bloc without India. Last month, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi held a virtual meeting with his counterparts from South Asian countries- Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Srilanka, and Afghanistan. India wasn’t present in the meeting. The meeting agreed to extend practical cooperation in the fields, including Covid-19, poverty reduction, non-traditional security fields, and poverty reduction.

Recently, the US has launched an initiative under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the “Quad”, together with Australia, India, and Japan.

Biden’s administration has shown that the U.S sees India as one of its key partners in dealing with China’s surging influence in the Indian Ocean. Last year also, the Trump administration signed an agreement that grants India access to U.S satellite data crucial for targeting missiles and military assets. The U.S is also a major supplier of military equipment to India. China’s growing vaccine diplomacy may be a response to the growing proximity of India and the US and the activities of Quad.

India, a pharmacy of the world, had set an ambition to become a global superpower in vaccine distribution. India had already supplied 60 million AstraZeneca vaccines to 76 countries under the COVAX mechanism. The country was set to produce a billion doses by 2022 with support from Quad partners. But the country suffered a setback due to its growing Covid crisis. India’s worsening Covid crisis opened opportunities for China to use vaccine diplomacy to increase influence in South Asia. South Asian countries like Nepal, Srilanka, Pakistan, Maldives, and Afghanisthan have approved emergency use of Chinese vaccines or given approval to mass rollout.

Chinese support comes amid political upheaval in Nepal, where Prime Minister K.P Sharma has dissolved the parliament and announced polls in November. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) which the Chinese are believed to have invested a lot to form the party by bringing two communist parties UML and CPN-Maoists has split into three pieces. China seemed confused on how to engage with Nepal after the split of the biggest communist party. But the recent announcement by China to support Nepal shows China’s interest in Nepal amid changing political scenario in Nepal. 

As there are no options to get Western vaccines soon, and India is struggling with its coronavirus crisis, the South Asian countries like Nepal should turn to China for help and act tactfully to secure more vaccines to save the lives of the citizen. Or else, the unprecedented cataclysm will engulf everyone in the country.  

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