India donates Covid19 vaccines for UN Peacekeeping Force

Modi remembers forgotten army of frontline workers

Politics

March 30, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

India donates Covid19 vaccines for UN Peacekeeping Force

UN Blue Helmets play an important role in maintaining peace in most fragile zones in the world (Credit: MONUSCO photos)

The United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, deployed in various parts of the world, mainly in Africa, have been carrying out their duties unmindful of the Covid19 pandemic. But so far, no one had thought of them as frontline workers. Now, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has donated 200,000 doses of vaccine to protect the Blue Helmets that protect millions of civilians in some of the worst war-torn areas in the world.

We had forgotten them in pandemic pandemonium. But make no mistake, they are also front-line workers. The UN Peace Keeping Forces (UNPKF) provide most needed global security services in the areas that need them the most. In 2020, they provided security and stability in war-torn parts of the world so that the governments, business  and NGOs could focus on the efforts to contain and address the planetwide Covid19 pandemic.

On March 11 last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new type of Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes Covid19 respiratory disease, as pandemic. Within a fortnight, on March 23rd 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent appeal for a global ceasefire in all the armed conflicts in all corners of the world to enable the countries to focus together on fighting the true enemy, the all-pervasive COVID-19. At that time, over 40 armed conflicts were on in various countries across the globe, killing thousands, injuring hundreds of thousands and leaving lives of tens of millions brutally shattered.

Eleven countries locked in long-term conflicts responded to the call by Guterres for a worldwide ceasefire. Since then, as many as 180 countries, the UN Security Council, regional organisations, civil society groups, peace advocates and millions of global citizens have endorsed the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. That was result of online petition organised by an NGO Avaaz. The UN repeated the same call at the start of the 75th UN General Assembly session in September 2020. Silencing the guns can not only support the fight against COVID19, but also create opportunities for life-saving aid, open windows for diplomacy and bring hope to people suffering in conflict zones that are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

But there is big gap between ‘endorsing a call’ and implementing it on the ground. There are enormous difficulties in implementing the ceasefire as conflicts have festered for years, distrust among the countries or warring groups is deep, with many spoilers and many suspicions. Despite the call, a large number of conflicts continued and UN Peace Keeping Forces, provided to UN mainly by a number of Asian and African countries, continued their hard work. These real frontline workers – the peacekeepers or Blue Helmets as they are called, continued to get exposed  to Covid19 in the most gruelling circumstances.

During the UN Security Council’s open debate on the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020) on the cessation of hostilities in the context of the Covid19 pandemic, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar made a striking offer. “Keeping in mind the UN Peacekeepers who operate in such difficult circumstances, India would like to announce a gift of 200,000 doses for them.” Quoting the Bhagvad Gita, a well-known Hindu scripture, Jaishankar had said “Do your work, with the welfare of others always in mind.”

The 200,000 doses mean it will be possible to administer the required double doses of Covid19 vaccines to all UN peacekeepers across missions. According to UN Peacekeeping, as of January 31, 2021 a total of 85,782 personnel are serving in 12 major peacekeeping operations across the world led by the Department of Peace Operations of UN.

A total of 121 nations are contributing uniformed personnel to the UN peacekeeping missions. India is traditionally among the largest troop contributing countries to peacekeeping missions.

The 200,000 doses, manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India and developed by Oxford University and British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, departed Mumbai on March 27. The shipment headed to Copenhagen, where it will be safely stored in a facility, re-packaged and quickly distributed to peacekeeping missions for the peacekeepers.

Following the despatch, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that he was “extremely grateful” for the gift given by India, the world’s biggest drug-maker and pharmacy. Under India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ (roughly translated as ‘Vaccine Friendship’) initiative vaccines are being air lifted to nations across the world – from India’s immediate neighbours to distant countries in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific. Hardly any needy country has been left out and so far over 60 million doses made in India have reached 70 countries across the globe.

India’s initiative in supplying vaccines to UN peacekeeping-forces and also to large number of poor countries is master stroke of Modi’s government in Vaccine Diplomacy. There has been unfortunate  inequality in distribution of vaccines and sad trend of rich nations hoarding the vaccines. There has also been a war of words between the European Union and the United Kingdom over vaccines. In view of the selfish attitude displayed by leaders of the rich nations, Guterres was more vocal and direct on February 17 when he addressed the high-level meeting of UN Security council. He  sharply criticised  the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of Covid19 vaccines. He lamented that 10 countries had administered 75 pc of all vaccinations while 130 countries had not received a single dose of vaccine. That clearly demonstrated how selfish and nationalistic the world leaders would be in case of   another planetary scale chaos, runaway climate crisis, for example. Guterres demanded  a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible. That sounds like a dream recognising self -cantered rich countries. “Vaccine Equity is the biggest moral test before the global community,” he said candidly.

While one can criticise the World Health Organisation for its handling of the pandemic, but no one can find fault with its  Covax programme, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

Covax is the vaccines pillar of the umbrella project of WHO-Access to Covid19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. It is a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to Covid19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Covax is vaccine pillar of ACT and is co-led by WHO, UNICEF, Global Alliance for Vaccinations (GAVI) among others . Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

Leaving large sections of the world unattended would provide to the virus an opportunity to spread faster. Over the past year, it has become evident that the virus does not recognise national boundaries and does not need a visa to enter rich countries. Billionaire Bill Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also supporting the initiative, has rightly said that “With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.”

The Covax has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. Yet another goal of finances needed for Covax of USD 5 billion in 2021 is likely to be missed in this chaos of ‘vaccine nationalism’. In addition, the initial needs of ACT for 2020-2021 were USD 38.1 billion. But this has fallen far short of the money needed. Pledges till March 2021 still left a huge gap of USD 22.9 billion. The next few months will be critical for mounting a unified global response to the threat.

Further commitments are needed to fully fund ACT and enable the delivery of more than 2 billion doses of vaccine, medical oxygen and millions of treatment doses and over 900 million diagnostic tests. The new rapidly emerging area of R&D would be the speed and type of mutations of SARS-CoV-2. Hence further funding would be needed, as per WHO. Global response to such needs is still lukewarm.

It is evident that Narendra Modi’s pledge and fulfilling the promises given in pledge stands out and serves as an example to other nations. United Nations has gone on record with the statement, “This important donation (by India) will allow us to ensure that UN peacekeepers are able to remain healthy and deliver in some of the most difficult environments in the world without relying on already stretched national health systems or ongoing Covax efforts.”

(Rajendra Shende, an IIT Bombay alumni,  is a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group)

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