The sourcing of Covid-19 vaccine has pushed Bangladesh into a place of tight diplomatic manoeuvre, where the vaccine has become an insignia of different poles. Vaccines have emerged as the new emblem of soft war on the global stage, which is witnessing the emergence of newly defined paradigms and a colder war. The race for developing vaccines within the shortest possible time can be compared with the cold war era space race. While the states are involved in active diplomacy, vaccine producing companies have discovered profiteering opportunities. As a consequence of these, billions of people across the globe are becoming victims of the vaccine divide. The ever-growing numbers of deaths and infections have created a dilemma for people to embrace either life or livelihood. Despite the emergence of vaccines, the experts have strongly argued that the coronavirus is here to stay for a long period; the world has to embrace the new normal.
The vaccination program in Bangladesh was struck hard with India’s decision to halt exports of covid vaccines. India’s decision not to send vaccines to other countries comes as a big blow for Bangladesh since it fully relied on vaccines provided by the Serum Institute of India. As per an agreement signed in December 2020, the Bangladesh government was supposed to receive 30 million doses of Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine named Covishield from Serum. Although Serum was supposed to provide 5 million doses per month, Bangladesh received only 7 million doses in two instalments while another 3.2 million was sent as a gift by Delhi. India’s decision came on the heels of a staggering covid outbreak in the country, where about 3 million people were infected with the virus and around 380 thousand people have died as a result of the infection, witnessing more than 3000 deaths a day.
India was seen as leading in vaccine diplomacy in South Asia, as it accounted for 60 per cent of global vaccine-production capacity. The Indian vaccine program was seen by the West as a significant counterweight against Chinese vaccine diplomacy across South Asia, where China made significant inroads with investments in smaller neighbouring countries of India. New Delhi, as part of the four-nation framework named the Quad agreed to work together to expand global vaccine supply. The vaccines were supposed to be funded by Japan and the United States, and Australia would be distributing them to Southeast Asian countries. The Serum Institute of India was producing over 2.5 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine a day until an accidental fire hit a Serum facility at the later part of January this year, and subsequent spiralling cases of covid in India, which bogged down India’s covid vaccine exports. India’s crisis pushed Bangladesh to look for alternative options.
With the economic boom of Bangladesh, the Gangetic delta has recently been at the focus of projecting soft power by the regional powers. Covid outbreak and race for vaccines added a new dimension to the competition. As the Indian supply of vaccines waned, Bangladesh started to explore alternative options in China, Russia and the USA. The Bangladeshi government’s decision to not look for alternative sources of vaccines was a major policymaking error if looked upon from a policymaking view. The administration had to jump into action to avoid a similar situation in future, a grim lesson for the country that it should not put all its eggs in one basket for facing such national crisis moments. The government has recently given nod to China’s Sinopharm, Sinovac, Russia’s Sputnik V and USA’s Pfizer-Biontech and Janssen vaccines to mitigate the ongoing vaccine crisis. Dhaka has also ramped up negotiations with Russia and China to co-produce their respective vaccines. Bangladesh is also looking to secure a part of Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccines from the USA, while it receives shipments of the other vaccines.
Another important lesson from India for Bangladesh is the oxygen shortage in Indian hospitals. Before the crisis started, India used to supply 15-20 per cent of Bangladesh’s monthly requirement of around 5,400 tons of medical and industrial oxygen. Dhaka had to rely on imports as the domestic oxygen production was not enough for meeting its demand. The country must look to expand the oxygen-producing capacities inside the country, should the worst-case scenario arise, along with oxygen sourcing options abroad.
Initially, Bangladesh might have gone for the AstraZeneca vaccine over the Chinese ones because they lacked clearance from the World Health Organization. But now, with the approval obtained, Dhaka has decided to select Chinese vaccines for mass inoculation. Bangladesh has also joined the Chinese initiative of virus pool along with all the South Asian countries sans India, an event which further bolstered China’s soft power projection in South Asia, and dent Western designs on the region.
The vaccine diplomacy, growing economic clout and subsequent geopolitical equations have given Dhaka uncharted waters to sail on. The crisis situation has compelled Bangladesh to look for alternative virus options leaving India, but also the geopolitical equations as well prompted Dhaka to make the choices. Chinese vaccines will look to cover a major section of the population for boosting immunity against the pandemic, the co-production option if gets the go-ahead will open the doors for the sleeping vaccine manufacturing capacity of Bangladesh and further bolster the diplomatic and economic projection capacity of Dhaka towards Southeast Asian countries. At the same time, Dhaka will also look to extract similar opportunities from the USA made vaccines, as the approval of US-made vaccines give a measure of Dhaka’s flexibility in accommodating major powers, besides opening backup options for the health safety of the Bangladeshi population.
Approval of UK, USA, Russia, and China made vaccines at the same time aligns with Bangladesh’s balancing approach, derived from the worldwide vaccine diplomacy. The covid vaccine is now the new medium of global power projection, and Dhaka has to follow a balancing approach as it does for other important strategic matters. The Indian decision to halt vaccine exports not only opened the doors for newer options for Bangladesh for sourcing vaccines, but at the same time set the pace for Dhaka to brandish its own form of soft power projection coming out of New Delhi’s shadows.
Bangladesh was seen recently to extend $200 million loans to Sri Lanka and $7.5 million to Sudan as debt relief, which signals the rise of Bangladeshi capitals, which is giving Dhaka an excellent opportunity to project its own soft power across South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. Bangladesh was also amongst the 40 countries which came with assistance to India during the disastrous second wave of the pandemic. Bangladesh provided India 10,000 vials of Remdesivir provided PPE kits and zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other tablets when the second wave of Covid-19 was at its peak. Bangladesh was also among the first countries to respond to Pakistani appeal to supply medicines for treating covid patients in 2020. If Bangladesh can produce adequate Covid vaccines for export with the help of Russia, China or the Western countries like the US or the UK, it will open up multi-dimensional opportunities for Bangladesh. Although Bangladeshi assistances during the pandemic to the outside world may seem insignificant in terms of magnitude, symbolically it amplifies the aspirations of Bangladesh to emerge as a major country of South Asia by economically superseding India and Pakistan.
Dhaka has to stick to its balancing approach and non-alignment with a primary focus on economic development, extracting optimum benefits from its ties with the major world powers, acknowledging the current future geopolitical and geo-economical equations to sail through the uncharted waters.
Written by Khalid Ibn Muneer