Modi, Trump and the Covid-19 drug

Health workers setting out to combat Covid-19, Chennai, April 4, 2020

We got to know from the US President Donald Trump today morning that his phone call to PM Modi on Sunday was to make a demand that India should lift its export ban on the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which is being used in America to treat COVID-19. 

Modi apparently acceded impromptu to Trump’s demand. Just like that — without apparently ascertaining the advisability of lifting the export ban recommended by the Health Ministry. 

Forty-eight hours later, Trump is getting impatient. He told the media, “I would be surprised if that [export ban] were his [Modi’s] decision. He’d have to tell me that. I spoke to him Sunday morning, called him, and I said we’d appreciate your allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn’t allow it [drug] to come out [of India], that would be okay, but of course there may be retaliation. Why wouldn’t there be? I would be surprised if he would, you know, because India does very well with the United States.” 

Now, in substantive terms, what is all this hullabaloo about? To be sure, the GOI imposed an export ban on the drug on Saturday. This was done apparently on the basis of the Health Ministry’s considered assessment that if the drug were to be in short supply in the period ahead, that might severely affect the overall capacity to cope with the coronavirus pandemic in the coming months. 

Getting wind of the export ban, Trump lost no time to call Modi [on a Sunday] demanding that the ban should be lifted so that supplies to the US could continue. 

It appears that following Trump’s demand, the Prime Ministers Office worked overtime to have the export ban lifted partially so as to comply with Trump’s demand. We now hear that the Ministry of External Affairs has been put in charge of the decision to be made on a case to case basis as to who gets the drug, who doesn’t.

But, isn’t this a matter for the Health Ministry? There are no easy answers. 

But you don’t have to know rocket science to figure out that under the present dispensation in South Block, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will be only too happy to carry out PM’s desire to comply with Trump’s demand. Which is why MEA has been put on the driver’s seat. Hey, isn’t the US a member of the Quad?   

In fact, a rational decision should not overlook that the US is already holding on to a huge stockpile of this particular drug. It is far from the case that there is a shortage of this drug in America. But Trump wants to boost the reserve stock! 

Now, why would he want to do that? Because, Trump is a street smart guy. And he is apprehensive — rightly so — that India’s own need of this particular drug will very soon go over the roof when tens of millions of Indians begin to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic and will rush to doctors seeking treatment, as predicted by experts. 

Let me pose a question to PM Modi and EAM Jaishankar. In case a shortage of this drug appears in India in a near future, will they guarantee that they will get Trump to replenish from the American stockpile? 

Now, if they cannot give such an assurance, they have no moral right to deplete the Health Ministry’s stock of this drug that might potentially deprive fellow citizens of medical treatment. 

Clearly, Modi and Jaishankar’s loyalty should first be to the country and their effort should be to ensure that India’s access to this vital drug is preserved optimally. 

The whole world is talking that India is very soon going to be the epicentre of Covid-19. If so, when the pandemic accelerates in India — and the signs are already aplenty — what is happening in America today will look like a picnic. 

After neglecting the healthcare system all these years, the least the government can do when such a massive crisis is approaching, should be, for heaven’s sake, to do some advance planning. Preserve at least our own resources, keep at least what we are producing, that may help rescue the life of hapless Indian patients. 

Do not let down our healthcare workers and leave them in the lurch in the barricades on the frontline. 

In a democratic system, the elected government’s primary obligation should be toward the nation. The decision makers should understand that. No foreign policy consideration comes into play here. Nor should such considerations be allowed to come in the way of Modi fulfilling the expectations placed on him by this nation as it inches toward a crisis of monumental proportions. 

The lives of tens and millions of Indians could be in serious jeopardy in a near future. And if this drug can make a difference — as the Chinese experiments suggest — there is no gainsaying the fact Modi should be the watchman at the gates to ensure that the country’s reserves are preserved and protected and made available to the countrymen. 

History will not forgive this appalling decision to prioritise Trump’s needs and requirements over that of the Indian nation.