The magic tablets of India's pillbox diplomacy

Even as India makes drug export a diplomatic exercise, it seeks testing kits

india-hydroxychloroquine-hcg-maldives-Dookun-MEA-Twitter Mauritius Vice-PM Leela Devi Luchoomu Dookun receiving the first consignment of half a million tablets of Hydroxychloroquine and 12 tons of other lifesaving medicines from a special Air India cargo flight sent by India | Indian embassy in Mauritius Twitter handle

Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), the rockstar of India's COVID-19 diplomacy, is being supplied to 55 countries, and counting. HCQ tablets make for a lucrative export item to nations that can afford to buy it; they also are the sought-after gifts in the goodwill hampers India is sending out as “grants” to the smaller nations.

In fact, more than half the nations India has supplied HCQ to received it as a gift. Twenty-one countries so far have bought the consignments.

Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs say that the grant hampers are much smaller than the export consignments. 

Among the big nations to have received the drug is the US, on whose demand India opened up the supply that it had closed once HCQ began being perceived as the magic tablet in the treatment of COVID-19, an image US President Donald Trump aggressively built.

Brazil and Israel were also among the first nations to get the drug. India has also given it to South Asian countries, in keeping with its Neighbourhood First policy.

Only yesterday, India sent supplies to Mauritius and Seychelles, the island nations on the Indian Ocean, which have traditional and diasporic links with India and are also important for India from the strategic viewpoint.

The drug has also been cleared for supply to the United Arab Emirates. The Indian expatriate community of 33 lakh in the UAE comprises one-third of the country's population. With jobs closed, the UAE has been threatening to take action against countries that are reluctant to fly back their nationals. 

The list of countries India has sent or will be sending HCQ to includes the US, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Zambia, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali Congo, Egypt, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Equador, Jamaica, Syria, Ukraine, Chad, Zimbabwe, France, Jordan, Kenya, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Slovenia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Urugway, Columbia, Algeria Bahamas, and the United Kingdom.

Paracetamol, a fever and pain remedy, and the antibiotic erythromycin are next in the popularity charts. Paracetamol, which was removed from the export ban along with HCQ, remains a licenced drug, whose export is government-controlled. Erythromycin was put back to the ‘free to export’ list after a small ban, while India was taking stock of its supplies. It is a broad-spectrum antibiotic and is useful in clamping down on secondary infections. 

Meanwhile, India has reached out to purchase COVID-19 testing kits from various nations. An initial import is coming from China today, and soon there should be a consignment coming over from South Korea. India is also in talks with manufacturers in the UK, Malaysia, France, Canada, the US, Germany and Japan for importing kits. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have been making calls to their counterparts across the world. Indian missions overseas also have been tasked with sourcing supplies for India's fight against COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, India has facilitated the evacuation of 35,000 nationals from 48 countries ever since the lockdowns began kicking into place across the world. Only today, 41 Pakistanis were repatriated across the Wagah border. These people had come to India on various visas--pilgrimage and medical and were stuck in Agra, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. There were reportedly around 180 Pakistani nationals stranded in India who expressed their desire to go home. 

Evacuations are a big logistic exercise under a lockdown, since foreign nationals are there across the cities in India, and have to be brought to the nearest airport from which a special charter will take off. It requires coordination with embassies, state governments and airports. 

Meanwhile, according to government sources, 3,336 Indian nationals across 53 countries have tested positive for COVID-19, and 25 have already died.