Sheikh Hasina's Doctrine of Vaccine Diplomacy

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Published on January 28, 2021
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Dr. Pranab Kumar Panday:

Even five months ago, the people of Bangladesh had to passionately wait to hear when they would get Covid-19 vaccine that would enable them to move freely as most of the countrymen had to stay at home to protect them from Covid-19 contamination for a long time. There was widespread controversy at all stages, whether the government of Bangladesh would be able to purchase vaccines once they would be ready to be delivered. We all know that several companies were in the race in different countries to develop vaccines. The most widely discussed vaccine was Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine followed by those of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Even the Russian vaccine – Sputnik-V also came out very hurriedly to protect people from being contaminated. Even several Indian companies are in the race of developing the vaccine.

While Russian's vaccines came first and distributed among the Russian people, including the Russian President's daughter, these were not exported outside Russia. On the other hand, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna's vaccine, once approved by the US drug administration, began to distribute among the USA people. These companies started exporting the vaccines to different countries, including the United Kingdom. However, Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine's storage is complicated because it has to be held at a temperature of minus 70 degrees. Therefore, this vaccine's usability is almost unlikely in Bangladesh because we have no infrastructure to store it.

Having considered the benefits and weaknesses of different vaccines, the Oxford and AstraZeneca Vaccine has been considered to be the most useful in Bangladesh for several reasons. The first explanation for this was that a large number of people engaged in the clinical trial of this vaccine, suggested that this vaccine may be more accurate to protect people from Covid-19 contamination. The second reason was that the preservation of the vaccine is not quite challenging as it can be stored at a reasonable temperature. The third explanation was that the price of the vaccine is relatively low as compared to Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine. Most notably, Oxford and AstraZeneca have an agreement with the Serum Institute of India to manufacture the vaccine for the Asian countries, which makes it easier to purchase.

However, there was apprehension among many people about the credibility of the Bangladesh government to purchase a sufficient quantity of vaccine for the people. They even puzzled themselves about whether or not the government will supply people with the vaccine at no cost? However, Bangladesh government under matured leadership of Sheikh Hasina has proven its credibility in vaccine diplomacy in several ways. The first is that the government could manage to sign a contract with the Serum Institute of India to purchase 30 million doses of Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine quickly. The most important provision of the agreement was that Serum Institute would supply vaccines in six consignments, each carrying five million doses. Another condition was that the Serum Institute would send the first shipment within the thirty days of approval of the vaccine by the Bangladeshi drug administration. The government's second crucial strategic decision is to provide vaccines to around 14 crore populations free of charge. We all know that the children under 18 years of age are not permitted to take the vaccine as there has not been any clinical trial on this category of people.

However, an uncertainty grew over the supply of vaccines with the Indian government's decision to enforce a moratorium on Serum Institute's exports until the domestic demands are met. Such news offered tremendous joy to the rumour mongers and their political masters who thought that the government would be forced into an embarrassing situation in this regard. They were also cheerful thinking that such demoralizing news would make people frustrated. However, they could not remain thrilled for a long time due to the Bangladesh government's penetrating diplomacy with the Indian government that was followed by the issuance of statements by the Indian Foreign Secretary and an executive of the Serum Institute who made it clear that the imposition of moratorium would not affect the export of vaccine to Bangladesh. With this news, the rumour mongers found them nowhere as they did not have enough materials to spread rumours and fake news on vaccines. It is encouraging that the government is holding discussions with different vaccine producing companies to purchase more vaccines at the soonest possible time.

The Indian government's decision to present Bangladesh with 2 million doses of vaccine turned out to be a wonder as nobody predicted such a decision even a few hours earlier the decision was made. It also represented the Indian government's strategic vaccine diplomacy for South Asia. They decided to make presents of this sort for all South Asian countries. The Indian government attempted to encounter China with the "neighbourhood first policy" which is also ready to offer vaccines to numerous countries in South Asia.

With the arrival of the first consignment of India's vaccine, the people of Bangladesh began dreaming of the freedom of travel beyond their homes. Meanwhile, the government has completed its preparedness to vaccinate people following specific guidelines. Though the government has become successful in their vaccine diplomacy, there is a stigma among the people concerning vaccines. Such a stigma stems from the fact that there has not been enough research on the side effects of vaccines on the human body as these were invented in a short period. Usually, the invention of a vaccine requires at least five years. But, all these vaccines have been developed within a year. Therefore, many people in our society are in a fix to decide whether or not to be vaccinated. To help people overcome such trauma, the government should carry out massive awareness-building campaigns about the vaccine's potential side effects. They should make it clear who should receive the vaccine and who should not. Such information would make people confident about taking vaccines.

The government deserves appreciation for its success in vaccine diplomacy. Now, it is time to complete the vaccination process successfully. One positive note is that our health workers have prior experience of providing different types of vaccines to the people. Thus, it would not be a challenge to provide vaccine to the people following WHO guideline. The government must ensure, however, that the vaccine process does not entail misappropriation. If misappropriation takes places, it will demolish the credibility of the government. We must admit that the government has shown its credibility in vaccine diplomacy and in handling the health and economic upheaval of Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, we could keep our trust in the government during the vaccination process also.

During the pandemic, the role of the government's foreign policy is significant in fighting against the catastrophic effects of this deadly virus as it is an extension of domestic or national policy. In reality, domestic and foreign policy are two sides of the same coin as domestic policies are designed and executed according to the broad direction of the foreign policy. Therefore, a government's economic and social status quo is not the only decisive factor of a government's success. Instead, the government's credibility is measured through its credibility in staying connected with the world communities during the worst ever time of the century. From this perspective, it can be claimed that Sheikh Hasina has shown her credibility while dealing with vaccine diplomacy. Therefore, she must be praised for what she has done to ensure availability of Covid-19 vaccine in the country.

Writer: Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.

Source: The Daily Sun