India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar had defended holding election rallies and mass gatherings in India amid the second wave of COVID-19 infections in the country. He said the Indian government is “moving heaven and earth” to get medical oxygen to people.
Defending India’s vaccine diplomacy, Jaishankar told Manoj Ladwa, chairman and CEO of India Inc. Group in a virtual interview, that India had international agreements to send the vaccine to other countries under the Covax agreement. “There was an obligation to give vaccines at low cost to a number of nations. We also had concerns with our immediate neighbours and didn’t want the pandemic on our doorstep.”
The minister said the whole country let its guard down when the first wave seemed under control. “At the end of February, we were looking at less than 10,000 cases a day. It has now gone up 38 times,” he said. “It can’t be religious crowds are a problem but protest crowds are fine. Yes, with benefit of hindsight its very easy for people to say we shouldn’t have allowed gatherings of any kind but remember a year ago we were pilloried for doing exactly that.”
Jaishankar said India is a deeply democratic and political country. “Suppose the government had said let’s not do the election, imagine the reaction! A year ago, when we did the lockdown, we did it because we were not prepared for the pandemic. Yet, I saw in this Freedom House report that we did the lockdown to deal with CAA protest. Elections are sacrosanct,” he added. “Absolutely, the healthcare system stands exposed. It is very clear that over 75 years we have underinvested in health. It’s that realization which is why the PM was pushing for Ayushman Bharat as we had reached a stage where he believed we cannot leave our people to the vagaries of private practitioners however good they may be. There is a shortage of doctors, nurses in India right now which is very much a concern too.”
The External Affairs Minister said demand of medical oxygen has gone up from 1,000 metric tonnes consumption to 7,500 to 8,000. “We have encouraged businesses to change production capacities to convert industrial oxygen to medical oxygen. Piyush Goyal (union industry minister) is running oxygen expresses. There are only 1200 oxygen tankers in India and we have been trying to convert nitrogen tankers and also purchase tankers from aboard.”
Jaishankar said vaccine companies in India had always planned to scale up production to meet India’s needs but then it became clear in February and March there was shortage of raw materials. He added that since March the MEA have been pressing countries to keep the raw materials flow open.