Speaker: Ambassador Vishnu Prakash - Former envoy to Canada and South Korea, Spokesperson MEA Govt. of India, Presently Foreign Affairs Specialist, Columnist, TV Panellist & Speaker
Facilitator: Devendra Pai, Course Director, IIDL Mumbai
Compiled by: Sudhanshu Shekhar
Date: 7th May 2020
The current unprecedented global pandemic which has never been experienced before by humanity. The world should have been prepared for something like this but was not, despite warnings in the past by eminent people, like the former US President Bush during his leadership in 2005 and Microsoft Chairperson, Bill Gates. Never has the world witnessed such a pandemic, the scale, the reach and the disruptions of the pandemic are unparalleled and we are still the throws of it. In a time of peace, humanity and the world has already lost almost 2.65 lakhs people and of which 80 percent deaths are in the developed world, with the best of medical systems. The economy has gone for a toss and the way of life as we know it has been disrupted with a lot of things coming to a stand still, and it may not be the same again.
Being a diplomat, a foreigh policy expert and drawing from his experience, Ambassador Vishnu Prakash talked about how every country has a different response to the pandemic. There are very few countries who understood the gravity of the situation or the enormity of the challenge and applied themselves. One country that stands out from the rest, on most parameters in dealing with the virus, is South Korea. Till late february, it had the second largest number of positive cases in the world. The first infection was discovered on 20th Jan and the cases spiralled to almost 1000 positives a day till late february, but by mid-march they managed to drag back the numbers and the crisis. How? -‘Trace, Test and Treat’ – They went about locating meticulously, not just the positive cases, but also all those they came in contact with, as each case has a multiplier effect. They tracked them, isolated to treat and then again tested. Korea is one of the most tech-savvy countries in the world with 100 percent literacy and a very disciplined population, so it was a combination of these factors which has helped them in handling the crisis. Also, transparency and people’s confidence in the leadership helped in serving the purpose. In Europe, Germany has been one of the most successful countries in handling the crisis because they enforced social distancing and they went in for testing. Similarly Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam have also done well.
When asked about US President Donald Trump’s suggestion that saving the economy is more important than saving lives, he expressed that without saying human lives come first and every effort has to be made to save human lives, but humans have needs to eat, to survive. There is a stage where a country needs to draw a line as even life is endangered if we don’t have livelihood. The numbers are disturbing, 1.5 billion people in the world from a global population of 7.7 billion have lost out on their livelihoods, by either losing their jobs or taking a pay cut. So, that is the scale of the economic distress and India is a very large country, hence that is the big challenge and nobody has a very clear answer about how to cope with it. As the scale of the challenge is humongous we have to weigh in all the pros and cons and perhaps would have to take certain steps which we would not have normally, because these are not normal circumstances.
Coming to the role of Chinese state and WHO criticism, it is not the first time that these deadly viruses originate from China, the SARS virus originated in 2002-03, but was brought under control. Still China wants to brush all this under the carpet, even blaming US soldiers for bringing the virus with them to Wuhan. However, it is important to see how WHO conducted themselves during the SARS outbreak, they commissioned an investigation, led from the front, cautioned the world about the challenge and issued advisories for nations. But this time, WHO has failed the world.
Although supposedly all countries are equal, unfortunately some countries are more equal than the others. The case in point could be how China dismissed the verdict of the International Court of Arbitration in the case of dispute with the Philippines about South China sea. That is how big powers act and China is acting. As far as the fear of chinese goods is concerned, that is for real. Gradually, at least for strategic, sensitive and critical goods in healthcare, IT, Telecom, defence, edible food etc. there will be a decoupling, in fact international companies may shift their units out of China and there will be a fall in demand for chinese goods, especially in these sectors.
Mr Devender asked the Ambassador that how he looks at India’s response, especially with regards to International relations and the supply of medicines or the HCQ diplomacy, to which he drew our attention to a survey which was drawn recently, in the last week of April, according to which 93 percent of the countrymen support the actions of the government in handling the coronavirus. With that kind of support it is obvious that the government is doing something right, and that our government has been ahead of the curve. India is one of the countries to cancel visas issued to the Chinese, to impose restrictions on travel to China, banned flights coming from China, extended it to other countries, introduced quarantine, closed our air space and from 25th of March the biggest ever lockdown known to humankind was introduced. Today, we are manufacturing our own PPEs, rapid test kits and so on. So, that has been the performance of India internally. For HCQ, India is the Pharmacy of the world, supplying medication to any and every country of the world. But that does not mean we have deprived our own citizens. Even though we have been a very responsible member in this committee of nations and would like to recall that our Prime Minister initiated the first ever virtual SAARC conference, he was the person to be called for the first G20 summit, which shows where India is.
In terms of our dependence on China, eventually there will be companies leaving China. But after the COVID crisis is over, the biggest issue the Govt. of India would look at is our own dependence on China, as we have 100 billion dollars of trade and roughly 60 billion dollars of trade deficit. So, this is politically untenable and we need to correct it. Unfortunately, barring a few manufactured items, like auto components, pharmaceuticals, gems and jewellery and give or take to a few other sectors, we are a major exporter of primary goods. It is because we did not industrialise enough, our industrial base is narrow contributing about 16 percent of our GDP whereas it should at least be 26 to 27 percent, so that is a challenge. In a large, young and aspirational country like India, people who are educated, who travel, need quality goods and services. and without them, one has just two options, either manufacture or import. We have reached a stage where we have no choice but to expand our manufacturing base. Hence, the Prime Minister had come up with the ‘Make in India’ initiative and it has created a buzz about the need to manufacture locally, although it has not attracted the kind of industry we were wanting because of certain challenges. This is perhaps the best opportunity and such which may never come in our life span, of introducing Make in India 2.0 and bringing in the necessary reforms, so that India becomes a more attractive place for investments. We need taxation reforms, labour reforms, land reforms, to get beauracrates out of the way and to improve ease of doing business. By this government, in 5 years we rose from 142 to 63 in the ease of doing business index, but it also means that 62 are still ahead of us. The world today is looking at India and wants its rise, this is an opportune time and indications are that the government is looking at a package for the businesses. First we need to take care of our own requirements, to cut down on imports, improve our trade balance sheets and also become an important link in the regional supply chains, because the supply chains would shrink, from global to regional and sub-regional and that is where India can play an important role.
In conclusion, post-corona, every country would be affected, it’s a global crisis, India would also be affected. The countries which would emerge relatively unscared will have an edge over the others, it is earnestly hoped and as the indications are, India would be one such country. Given the size of India, so far we are doing very well and hopefully we will manage to flatten the curve. In the hindsight, it will open an opportunity for India to march ahead confidently and achieve its destination. We were already projected to be the third largest economy in the world, and the difference between India and other countries is that it has always played a constructive role, even in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, we are seen as the net security provider; coup in Maldives, we are there, Tsunami hits Indonesia, we are there.
Key highlights of the Conversation:
- In a time of peace, humanity and the world has already lost almost 2.65 lakhs people and of which 80 percent deaths are in the developed world, with the best of medical systems. The economies have gone for a toss and the way of life as we know it has been disrupted.
- One country that stands out from the rest, on most parameters in dealing with the virus, is South Korea. In Europe, Germany has been one of the most successful countries in handling the crisis, while some other countries and entities like Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam have also done well. Here, I would like to add, while keeping my fingers crossed that India also stands out.
- At times there is a toss up between living and livelihood, life is also endangered if you don’t have livelihood or means of life. That is the challenge we face now.
- For six weeks about 80 crore people would have traveled within China and across the world from China. Only on 31st dec, 2019 they informed the WHO but didn’t care to inform the world, by the time the did if was the third week of January. Still China wants to brush all these lapses under the carpet and is pushing a construed narrative which suits it.
- Gradually, at least for strategic, sensitive and critical goods in healthcare, IT, Telecom, defence, edible food etc. there will be a decoupling, in fact international companies may shift out there units out of China and there will be a fall in demand for chinese goods, especially in these sectors, it’s bound to happen.
- By not holding and releasing buffer stocks of pharma supplies, India acted as a responsible member of the committee of nations.
- We need to take care of our own requirements, to cut down on imports, improve our trade balance sheets and also become an important link in the regional supply chains, because the supply chains would shrink, from global to regional and sub-regional and that is where India can play an important role
- We have all the attributes that should enable us to play a befitting role and I think that, provided India comes out relatively unscathed from this crisis, this will be the time for India to play its rightful role in the comedy of nations.