New Delhi: Taking the ‘vaccine diplomacy’ forward India has supplied Covid19 vaccines to two of its neighbouring and friendly countries – Bhutan and The Maldives.
A consignment containing 150,000 doses of COVISHEILD vaccines will reach Thimphu on 20 January 2021. Bhutan is the first country to receive Government of India’s gift of the COVIDSHIELD vaccines, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. Obviously, India and Bhutan share unique and special bilateral relations, based on trust, goodwill and mutual understanding and characterized by close, historical and cultural linkages at the people’s level.
In line with India-Bhutan unique and special relations, the centre ensured continuous supply of trade and essential items to Bhutan, despite COVID-19 related lock-downs. The Government of India so far has provided essential medicines and medical supplies- including Paracetamol, Hydroxychloroquine, PPEs, N95 masks, x-ray machine and test kits worth over Indian currency Rs 2.8 Core to the Royal Government of Bhutan. India has also entered into an “Air Travel Arrangement” or “Transport Bubble” agreement with Bhutan.
The Modi government also has facilitated the repatriation of over 2000 Bhutanese nationals stranded in various parts of India. Also facilitated the repatriation of 14 Bhutanese nationals stranded in third countries through Vande Bharat flights to India and their onward journey to Bhutan.
The Government has supplied a consignment containing 100,000 doses of COVISHIELD vaccines that will reach Male on January 20, Wednesday. India’s vaccine diplomacy is yet another testament to its Neighbourhood First policy, in which Maldives occupies a special and central place. This is reciprocated in full measure by the ‘India First’ policy of the Government of Maldives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Maldives in June 2019 rightly said ‘Neighbourhood First is our priority; and in the Neighbourhood Maldives is priority’.
The delivery of these vaccines in Maldives today fulfils the commitment made by Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla during his visit to the Maldives in November 2020 when he announced that as a close partner and friend, India would accord priority to Maldives for providing vaccines, whenever these vaccines are ready.
Since Maldives has a population of about 500,000, the donation will cover the vaccination requirement of a significant percentage of the population. In addition, the Govt of Maldives proposes to purchase 300,000 doses of vaccines from SII at commercial rates.
It is worth mentioning that right from the start of the COVID pandemic, India has worked very closely with the Maldives in dealing with the pandemic.
Among all neighbours, Maldives was the first and one of the largest beneficiaries of New Delhi’s Covid related assistance. This includes assistance in the evacuation of Maldives nationals from Wuhan, the supply of essential medicines and food items and deployment of a 14 member Rapid Response Team consisting of doctors and paramedics in March 2020 to guide and train the Maldivian authorities and personnel in tackling Corona threat.
When international borders were closed due to the pandemic in April 2020, Operation Sanjeevani was launched to meet the medicine requirements of Maldives. Under this operation, a special IAF plane airlifted 6.2 tonnes of essential medical supplies from India to Maldives.
Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid has publicly acknowledged that India has been the “first and the best responder” for the Maldives during this crisis.
It is noteworthy that Indian assistance comes without any pre-conditions or expectations. In order to support the tourism industry of Maldives, which is the main revenue earner for Government of Maldives, it was decided to create an air travel bubble with the Maldives in August 2020. Maldives was the first country in South Asia with which an air travel bubble (with India) was established.
The air bubble has been very successful and at present, there are 40 flights to Maldives from 6 different cities of India.
Following the creation of the air bubble with Maldives, with more than 60,000 tourist arrivals, India now occupies the number one spot as a tourist source in the Maldives. This position was occupied by China before the Covid pandemic. In September 2020, India extended urgent financial assistance of US$ 250 million to Maldives through investment by SBI. This was the first assistance package of such a magnitude that was announced by the Government to any country to deal with COVID-19 pandemic.
It was also decided to launch a direct cargo ferry service between India and Maldives to ensure a reliable and predictable supply chain for Maldives and boost bilateral trade. An announcement to commence the service was made by External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar in August 2020 and the maiden journey of the cargo ferry service was flagged off by Minister of Shipping of India and Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation of Maldives in September 2020.