President Trump’s crowded White House press conferences to discuss the coronavirus have become daily events, Washington, DC, March 13, 2020
It often puzzles me what transpires during high-level visits by world leaders. The substantive content of such events laced with pomp and glory impacting inter-state relations is generally handled by sherpas, quietly and unobtrusively. (Of course, there are sherpas and sherpas — some low-flying, a few high-flying.) Is it tourism that principally attracts the VIP? Or, does he hope to make up for his own inadequacies at a personal level by seeing first-hand how his peers in faraway lands operate more efficiently?
This question becomes intriguing in its application to PM Modi’s extended 5-day state visit to Israel in 2017. Modi was clearly on a learning curve in cementing the ideological bonds between Hindutva and Zionism. But beyond that lies something else of far greater enduring value.
The one national characteristic that even critics of Israeli policies like myself would acknowledge will be that country’s work ethic, which is a national trait.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always carries in his coat pocket a wish list during visits abroad to ask the right questions and elicit from his counterparts something, anything, that might be useful for “the state of Israel” (to borrow his favourite, loving expression). Putin is another stellar example. And, of course, Donald Trump.
The contrast couldn’t be sharper in our case. The moment it was brought to Trump’s notice that India was imposing an export ban on the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine which could be useful in treating Covid-19 patients, Trump was on the line, ringing up Modi and seeking that exports may still take place for the American market. Modi agreed and lifted the ban for the US. (Read my earlier blog Modi, Trump and the Covid-19 drug.)
But, did it occur to the Indian side to seek a reciprocal gesture from Trump? From MEA’s press release, the answer is ‘No’. Modi instead discussed the virtues of Ayurveda.
An opportunity is now at hand. The BBC reported just an hour ago that Trump is contemplating transferring to some “desperate countries” such as the UK the surplus ventilators in the US godowns. He specifically mentioned the UK. Perhaps, PM could make up for the lost opportunity on Sunday by bringing to Trump’s attention that India too has a “desperate” need of ventilators. Why not make the phone call tonight itself before the White House switchboard gets clogged?
Our government cannot claim to be fighting fit in its upcoming struggle against coronavirus. Surely, there are lots of things that the Indian healthcare system is lacking. When we speak of “strong solidarity and cooperation” — to quote from the MEA press release — why does it have to be always a one-way street?
If Netanyahu were in Modi’s shoes, he would have sized up that a wonderful window of opportunity was at hand to ask Trump for something that might make a big difference to Israel as it combats Covid-19. Indeed, Israel is fighting with its back against the wall in combating the coronavirus. As of today, the death toll stands at 71 and the number of infected cases at 9404. For a small country, these are staggering figures.
Israel is under very strict lockdown. Nonetheless, what is utterly fascinating is how Israel is coping with the situation. Israel too is in a similar predicament as India, with a healthcare system that is grossly ill-equipped to handle an incoming tsunami. But this is where work ethic comes into play.
No clanging of plates, no 9-minute darkness, no videoconferences in the international circuit. Netanyahu’s office simply got around to making a comprehensive assessment of the likely chronic shortfalls in equipments and medicines in the period ahead — surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, ventilators and test kits, overalls for ambulance workers and so on. It then passed on the list to Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.
Overnight, Mossad turned into a Red Cross, it obtained huge supplies from abroad. The operation was personally supervised by the agency’s director, Yossi Cohen. Interestingly, some of the procurements were from countries with which Israel does not even have diplomatic relations. Last week alone, the Mossad brought 4 lakhs coronavirus test kits to Israel from an undisclosed foreign location.
The Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday that Israel has signed a deal worth $25.2 million with Chinese biotech giant BGI Genomics in equipment and substance supply for performing novel coronavirus tests. The deal will allow the operation of an additional at least 10,000 coronavirus tests a day in Israel. Xinhua cryptically adds, “The devices, which are purchased in collaboration with the defense ministry, are expected to reach six (Israeli) testing laboratories in two to three weeks.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself is in self-isolation. But the Israeli parliament’s Special Committee on Dealing With the Coronavirus is overseeing government efforts to curb the outbreak in Israel.
Now, both India and Israel are functioning democracies. But isn’t there a world of difference in their respective work ethic? Indeed, what could be more important for an elected government anywhere on earth at this point in time than the security and welfare of the people who elect it to power, especially when an emergency is looming large on the horizon affecting public health?
Therefore, when the MEA puts out such a ghastly press release on the Trump-Modi phone call, it is apparent that there is something very rotten in the state of Denmark. Modi forgot to ask Trump for anything that India may need — and there is so much shortfall all around! Simply incomprehensible.
Aren’t we just hoping to muddle through the ravaging pandemic? For argument’s sake, if what MEA press release says is true and our leaders have such bleeding hearts, why don’t they join the world opinion — including the UN and America’s European allies and Russia and China (and Pakistan) — to urge Trump to lift the sanctions against Iran? It is rank hypocrisy to instead preach on “the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic” and do nothing.