WHITE HOUSE – The United States is pledging to send oxygen to India as soon as possible and tens of millions of vaccine doses abroad in stages, in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and intense pressure on America for significant help.
“We want to work in partnership with India,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. “We are committed to getting the assistance they need, whether that’s oxygen, PPE, therapeutics, tests or raw materials for vaccines.”
A “strike team” of U.S. public health experts will be dispatched to India, a senior administration official said.
Up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could go to other countries in stages once it clears federal safety reviews, according to the White House.
“Right now, we have zero doses of available of AstraZeneca,” said Psaki, who explained the release of vaccines for other countries is still weeks away and would likely initially total 10 million doses.
“We will consider a range of options from our partner countries, and of course, much of that will be through direct relationships,” she said.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke on Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what a senior administration official described as “a warm and positive call.”
On Twitter, Modi said he “underscored the importance of smooth and efficient supply chains of vaccine raw materials and medicines,” adding that the partnership between the two countries “can address the global challenge of COVID-19.”
“Any help at all will save lives,” Dr. Jon Andrus, an adjunct professor with The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told VOA. “But we need to think big and help motivate other countries to do the same. We have seen examples of when that is done, lives can be saved.”
U.S. officials say there has not been a de facto ban under the Defense Production Act (DPA) preventing the export of materials needed to make vaccines, rather, manufacturing globally has exceeded available supplies.
“DPA in these cases just means U.S. companies prioritize their government contracts ahead of other orders. It doesn’t mean an export ban,” explained Tim Manning, White House COVID-19 supply coordinator.
“The United State government diverted our pending orders of vaccine filters to India’s vaccine manufacturing effort. This will help India make more vaccines,” Manning said on Twitter.
India on Monday ordered its armed forces into the fight against COVID-19, with oxygen from the military reserves. Retired medical military personnel are also being deployed to health facilities.
Coronavirus infections hit a record peak for the fifth consecutive day on Monday. Across India, there are no beds for patients, and health care workers cannot cope with the influx.
On social media, relatives of those ill with COVID-19 are begging strangers for oxygen supplies, while state officials pleaded with the central government to increase allotments. In some cities, the number of bodies has overwhelmed the capacity of crematoriums, resulting in mass cremations.
India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has an official tally of 17.3 million infections and nearly 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to Health Ministry data. Some health experts say the true number of total cases could be as much as 10 times higher, due to a lack of testing.
India’s situation is “beyond heartbreaking,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Ideally, the United States should send “35 million to 40 million AstraZeneca vaccines that it has in storage but will not be using to India or Brazil or any other country that really needed them right now. But I don’t think India has a shortage of vaccines as much as a shortage of other supplies,” said Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia.
India is the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer and earlier this year was engaged in a diplomatic push to export doses. But now, domestic demand for vaccines in the country exceeds the supply.
India’s coronavirus caseload had been under control last year due in part to lockdowns.
But according to Pande, the government failed to bolster its underfunded health care infrastructure and “to convince the majority of Indians that the pandemic was still in their midst and they needed to remain vigilant. The result is before all of us.”
“Support from the U.S. is welcome, and the PPEs, oxygen, ventilators, medications and support from the CDC will help,” Pande said. “However, unless and until the case numbers come down, there is little anyone can do. The case numbers are overwhelming India’s weak health care system. India also needs to vaccinate a majority of its population, but as of now, the numbers vaccinated is extremely low.”
The crisis India faces will have geopolitical ramifications, Pande told VOA.
“All the soft power India gained from its vaccine diplomacy and pandemic-related support to its neighbors and allies is of little use if the country does not have the capability to take care of its own citizens,” she said.
China and Russia are now among those offering oxygen and medicines to India and its neighbors, which will have an impact on the effort by India and like-minded countries to contain Chinese influence in the region, according to Pande.
“India’s desire to be a leading global player will only be achievable if the country invests in its domestic capabilities,” Pande said. “What we see before us is an inability by the Indian governmental apparatus to plan and strategize in advance, but rather to leave things till the end with the hope that it will resolve itself or others will come in and help. This is not how a wannabe global power behaves.”
Meanwhile, India’s government has ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down some social media posts that are critical of its delayed and flawed response to the pandemic.
“That certainly wouldn’t be in line with our view of freedom of speech around the world,” Psaki replied when asked Monday about the censorship.
Modi has also come under fire for holding election rallies in several states that attracted thousands of people to stadiums amid the pandemic.