Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Community in the Time of COVID-19: Pathways for a New Normal in Indian Humanitarianism

Supriya Roychoudhury
April 27, 2020

In a tweet released by UNDP Serbia on March 29, just five days after the Indian government enforced a national lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, it was revealed that India had exported ninety tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Serbia in response to a request for assistance made by the Serbian Foreign Minister to his Indian counterpart. Subsequently, reporters, politicians, and citizens were abuzz about why India had exported much-needed PPE when its own healthcare professionals were in dire need of it. Some commentators drew equivalence with colonial Britain’s free-market policies that had resulted in the Bengal famine in 1943. Aside from the ethical unease expressed over the decision, there was confusion over whether India was in violation of guidelines recently introduced by the Ministry of Commerce to restrict the export of critical medical equipment needed to support the domestic response to COVID-19.

Media reports, official statements from the Indian Ministry of Commerce, and a statement issued by the Serbian Ambassador in New Delhi subsequently revealed that the shipment contained mainly surgical gloves—an item which neither features on the government’s list of prohibited items for export, nor is in short supply in the country. According to Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of the Association of Indian Manufacturers of Medical Devices (AiMeD), “India had a spare capacity of 786 million gloves when we last checked with manufacturers in the middle of February, so no harm in giving aid to those who need it if no shortfall with us in this global community.” Malini Aisola, from the All India Drug Action Network, has similarly stated that “there does not seem to be any dearth” and “while we need to be prepared on all fronts, including sterile gloves for routine use, the shipment was humanitarian aid, and commercial exports should not be controversial.” It would appear, therefore, that India provided humanitarian assistance to Serbia in line with its wherewithal and capacity and without jeopardizing the needs of its own people and frontline healthcare responders.

These debates around whether, how, and on what terms India should provide international humanitarian assistance to support the global response to COVID-19 erupted again within just a few days, when it emerged that India had lifted a ban to halt the export of hydroxychloroquine—a drug that has controversially shown some promise in the treatment of COVID-19—to ensure its domestic availability. As was the case with the PPE shipment to Serbia, initial public skepticism gradually diminished as authorities provided an assurance that India had the capacity to meet both domestic and international need.

Both incidents, and the public’s broad response, illuminate certain analytical tensions that lie at the heart of the discourse on India’s humanitarian assistance—how might India balance its domestic humanitarian obligations and its international humanitarian commitments in the face of a global humanitarian crisis? Is it possible for India to operationalize an ethics of international solidarity whilst simultaneously being attentive to domestic precarity? Part of what had prompted the initial moral condemnation of the Indian shipment to Serbia was the perception that the Indian government was able and willing to extend external humanitarian assistance at a significant cost to its own citizens, frontline responders, and public health infrastructures. In other words, the discomfort expressed on social media appears to have had less to do with the actual gesture of Indian humanitarianism, and more to do with the perception that it had become a zero-sum game in which the well-being of Indian citizens had been traded away for commercial gain and reputation.

Indian international humanitarian assistance need not, however, operate as a zero-sum transaction. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, for example, represents a global humanitarian crisis in which India balanced its significant domestic humanitarian needs with its international humanitarian responsibilities. Even as the Indian military and civil administration airlifted supplies to populations within India, it coordinated an impressive and rapid humanitarian naval response in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia. In the case of COVID-19, if the clarifications provided by the authorities on the availability of surplus medical equipment and medication are to be trusted, the PPE shipment to Serbia and the decision to export hydroxychloroquine to 55 countries are, in fact, emblematic of how Indian international humanitarianism can indeed exist alongside domestic humanitarianism.

Other examples of Indian international humanitarianism in recent days include mobilizing the Indian Air Force to launch “Operation Sanjeevani” to deliver 6.2 tons of essential medicines and hospital consumables to the Maldives, dispatching a team of medical experts to the Maldives to set up a viral testing lab, deploying a Rapid Response Team to Nepal, holding a virtual meeting with SAARC leaders in order to devise a regional response plan, and extending $1 million worth of assistance as part of the recently established SAARC Emergency Fund to share equipment, expertise, and resources with its neighbors in the region. Crucially, these interventions have not detracted from the domestic humanitarian response, demonstrating yet again, that international humanitarian assistance need not operate on zero-sum logic.

What is striking, however, are the internal contradictions in India’s philosophy of humanitarianism. Even as India supported diplomatic missions to repatriate approximately 40,000 foreign nationals from India to their home countries, and coordinated various initiatives to evacuate Indian nationals from overseas from mid-March onwards, it failed to anticipate and facilitate ahead of time the safe return of its own domestic migrant communities to their respective home states before the nationwide lockdown went into effect. As India ships approximately 5,000 metric tons of surplus wheat reserves to Afghanistan, it has held back from releasing excess food grain to state governments, which economists have argued would allow them to provide rations to the millions who fall outside of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and risk death by starvation. It has responded to international calls of distress and requests for medical equipment and expertise with impressive nimbleness and skill—from places as far flung as Italy, the Maldives, and Serbia—while dragging its feet on the procurement and manufacture of critical PPE urgently needed by Indian health care professionals.

In each of these cases, a commitment to acting responsibly in the international arena appears to greatly outmatch any resolve to act with accountability, solidarity, and justice within the country itself. “We will do all we can” is what Prime Minister Modi allegedly told President Trump on a call to discuss bilateral cooperation on COVID-19 before eventually lifting restrictions to allow for the export of hydroxychloroquine to the United States. Whatever India’s strategic motivations, there is no doubt that this is an exemplary instinct to harbor in the midst of a global humanitarian and health crisis. However, it is one that has been alarmingly missing in the context of India’s domestic humanitarian response, as is evidenced by a poorly executed national lockdown strategy that has disproportionately hurt the country’s most vulnerable communities.

The response to these incoherencies should not be to discontinue or dilute India’s international humanitarian cooperation. After all, India’s internationalist instincts were not responsible for these lapses in its domestic humanitarian conduct. India can, and should, respond to countries who reach out for assistance; internationalism, cooperation, community, and solidarity are values that have long stood at the core of India’s foreign policy identity and ethos. These are values that are worth safeguarding in an international environment that has become increasingly beleaguered by isolationism and hostility. Crucially, these are values that must be translated and applied to the domestic context as well.

What is required is the formulation of an ethical framework that guides responsible humanitarian conduct in both the international, as well as the domestic context and brings domestic and international humanitarianism together in mutually reinforcing ways. This might entail, for example, full public disclosure of the scale, motivation, rationale, implications, and potential domestic trade-offs of India’s international humanitarian assistance. It might also involve the development of independent, comprehensive needs assessments to evaluate the extent and depth of domestic need—immediate, medium, and longer-term—against resources available and the urgency of the request being sought.

It is probable that global humanitarian crises—whether another pandemic or a climate change-induced calamity—will only increase in the future. Like the tsunami in 2004 or COVID-19, it will bring into its fold large sections of the international community. India will be confronted then, as it is now, with the issue of whether and how to align its international commitments and domestic obligations. Attaining coherence between internationalism and domestic attentiveness will be a messy and imperfect process. Nevertheless, this must be the new normal in Indian humanitarianism, toward which India must strive in a post-COVID-19 world.

Supriya Roychoudhury is a political geographer and analyst at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies, Newnham College, University of Cambridge.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

© 2020 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.