COVID-19 Diplomacy- Efforts, Significance and Challenges

covid diplomacy upsc

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Lockdown has proved to be major disruptive events in recent times. It has thrown open weaknesses and strengths in international relations. The current crisis is expected to shift the global power centres and India’s proactive diplomatic initiatives have attracted worldwide attention.

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This topic of “COVID-19 Diplomacy- Efforts, Significance and Challenges” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

How has the world responded?

  • A common trend seen in the initial period of the crisis is countries resorting to protectionism.
  • USA’s response was marked by oscillation in its stance. Though initially appreciative of China’s efforts, the US administration went on to criticise the Asian giant for its lack of transparency. The USA imposed restriction on flights from China in February.
  • The steps further strained the US-China trade war. USA’s maximum pressure strategy had impacted Iran‘s ability to respond effectively to the health crisis. USA has refused to lift sanctions on Iran and instead had proceeded to block a 5 billion USD loan from the World Bank in an attempt to please Israel and Saudi Arabia.
  • China has been pulling out all stops to rectify its global image and resorting to what is being called ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’. The country had sent large bulks of PPE and testing kits to various countries like Italy. However, many of these were found defective and returned- thus backfiring. The country has also been working to make sure that Taiwan stays excluded from World Health Assembly meetings and that the world nations subscribe to its ‘One China Principle’.
  • The European region quickly became a major hotspot after China. Countries like Italy and Spain were badly affected by quickly climbing COVID deaths. The EU‘s response was marked by a lack of collaborative effort which is especially important given the EU’s open borders. The move by countries like Germany to block the export of essential equipment to Italy in times of need and the dispute over the ‘Corona bonds’ affected the bloc’s credibility.
  • The United Nations launched the ACT- Accelerator as an international collaboration to develop and enable access to new treatments for the virus. A global humanitarian response plan was also released. It additionally released 15 million USD from its CERF (Central Emergency Response Funds) to aid vulnerable countries.
  • WHO has been criticised for its slow response (in declaring the pandemic) and for being less than transparent. The USA has announced plans to stop funding the organization- a major blow as its one of the largest contributors.
  • Major international summits had to be called off- affecting opportunities for countries to interact and negotiate on various issues ranging from trade to climate change. The UNFCCC summit in Bonn, Germany was cancelled. The CERAWeek energy conference (one of the biggest gatherings in the oil sector) in Houston was cancelled.
  • Major sporting events including the Tokyo Olympics 2020 was cancelled.
  • Many of the regional summits were taken to the virtual platform. Examples include the SAARC, G7 and NATO summits.
  • The functions and engagements of the various UN bodies, including the UN Security Council, are being conducted over telephones, e-mails and video-conferencing.

What are the challenges to diplomacy due to COVID-19 situation?

  • Transparency issue: China, the country of the crisis’ origin, has been less than transparent. The country’s reputation for curbing its media and any form of negative reports has put a strain on diplomatic relations with the Asian giant.
  • Travel restrictions: many governments brought in travel restrictions to prevent importation of new cases. This affected the traditional diplomatic engagements among the countries.
  • Vaccine for COVID-19: given the seriousness and the global nature of the pandemic, the first country to develop an effective vaccine would command significant power over the others. The countries are engaged in a race to develop such a vaccine and some are already looking to patent their versions.
  • Need for PPE & medicines: The pandemic had caused a surge in demand for personal protective equipment and medicines. This affected supply chains which became tools for political manipulations.
  • Blame games played among countries like the USA and China and international organizations like WHO.
  • The pandemic has given rise to an economic crisis in both developing and developed countries, let alone the under-developed nations. This has led to large scale job losses of which immigrants proved to be the major casualties. Eg: Gulf countries have been focusing on employing their own citizens leading to immigrant populations (notably Indians) losing their livelihood.
  • Racial discriminations and attacks: the virus scare has caused a spike in racially charged crimes and xenophobia. Eg: attack of Asian people in the USA and African people in China.
  • Tensions from the trade war have carried over to the present crisis.
  • There is even a general fear of diplomatic atrophy.

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What efforts are being taken by India?

  • The Indian government plied aircraft and ships to evacuate its nationals who were stranded abroad- including from Wuhan in China. Simultaneously, it evacuated citizens of neighbouring countries in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region)- such as Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Madagascar and South Africa. It had even offered to transport Pakistani nationals back to their country.
  • The Vande Bharat Mission transported over 8,000 Indians, mainly from the West Asian region, using 64 flights. The second phase is to use 149 repatriation flights to evacuate people from 31 countries.
  • Operation Samudra Setu: INS Jalashwa and INS Magar returned Indians stranded in the Maldives. Together, these naval vessels evacuated more than 800 Indians.
  • These evacuees were quarantined in Indian facilities before being sent off to their homelands. The ITBP facilities were used as quarantine centres and the evacuees were subject to testing before being released.
  • India took a proactive role in bringing in an international cooperative effort. The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) were used as a platform for cooperation on India’s initiative.
  • SAARC: The SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund was set up under India’s initiative with a commitment of 10 million USD. Following India’s lead, other members also contributed to the fund. The platform has been used for interaction at ministerial level and experts-level. Medical personnel have been training their counterparts in the SAARC countries through online platforms to help in capacity building. The SAARC members were put on a priority list by India for the supply of vital medicines.
  • India supplied medicines to several countries including economically weaker nations in Africa and Latin America and hotspot countries like the USA. Life-saving drugs like the hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and essential drugs like paracetamol were supplied. The drugs were transported through diplomatic cargo, IAF flights and foreign evacuation charters.
  • The Sagar Mission was launched to supply vital commodities such as food and medicines like HCQ and ayurvedic preparations in addition to aid in the form of medical assistance teams. The assistance was transported by INS Kesari to the 5 island nations in IOR: Maldives, Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.
  • India sent its health personnel as part of global health engagement. Military doctors were sent to help with handling the health crisis in countries like Nepal, Maldives and Kuwait.
  • India acted as the first responder to aid several countries like Mauritius and Seychelles.
  • India sent food aid in the form of wheat consignments to Afghanistan via the Chabahar port.
  • India engaged with countries with which it had recently strained relations- such as Malaysia and Iran. India is to send anti-malarial drugs to Malaysia. It engaged with Iran to evacuate stranded nationals and the Iranian President reached out to the Indian PM seeking assistance in dealing with the pandemic and the US sanctions.

Why is this significant?

  • At a time when the world leaders are resorting to politics and power play, India has shown good leadership and inclusive action.
  • India’s evacuation efforts can be contrasted with the Japanese handling of the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship. India had sent an Air India flight to evacuate the Indian passengers and nationals from other countries like Peru, Sri Lanka, Nepal and South Africa.
  • Instead of reacting to threats of sanctions, India has responded with assistance in the form of equipment and medicine supply while ensuring that its own needs are fulfilled- displaying level-headedness in times of crisis.
  • The current crisis has given India the role of ‘pharmacy of the world’. For the first time, the chemical sector has become the top exporting sector in India.
  • India has been acting in line with its stated objective of becoming the regional security provider i.e. the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision introduced in 2015.
  • There is a leadership vacuum developing amidst the COVID crisis. China is becoming increasingly unreliable in many countries’ perspective, the USA is bogged down by the virus and improper disease management while the EU countries have largely failed in coming together during the crisis.
  • India’s initiatives on the SAARC platform served as an inspiration for other international platforms like the G20 and G7.
  • The policy adopted by the Indian government during the recent crisis is a departure from its past tendencies to look at itself as a country with limited capabilities to engage in such global efforts.
  • The current situation will help strengthen ties that were weakened by various issues like US sanctions, the Kashmir question, etc.

What are the challenges?

  • There is a high chance that China would be one of the first countries to return to economic normalcy and consequently one of the first to come out of the crisis. This could give it a competitive edge over other countries- especially over the USA which may be seen as its balancing force in the west.
  • India is set to take over as the chair of the Executive Board of WHO. This important post on the decision-making panel of the world health body at a time when WHO is facing criticism for acting as ‘China’s propaganda tool’, losing US funding and being entangled in the US-China feud may prove to be a challenge.
  • India cannot rest on the fact that there is a growing distrust of China among the world nations and the idea that this would translate into an outflow of investments and supply chains away from China. There is a possibility that the investors may view China as being resilient and hence a safer investment destination.
  • India depends on China for a huge portion (nearly 70%) of its API (active pharmaceutical ingredient).
  • The recent border disputes at the Pangong Tso and Naku La between India and China show that the pandemic has failed to cease such geopolitical conflicts.
  • China has also stepped up its activities in the South China Sea. This has triggered US entry into the region and an increase in tensions.
  • Various international bodies have flagged a high chance of the world nations facing high levels of unemployment, debt and poverty and global economy entering a period of recession. This would mean that the struggling countries would revert back to Chinese mechanisms like debt trap investments and the BRI.
  • Many issues over which India’s ties with other countries were strained in the pre-COVID period have not been completely addressed- only shifted to back-burner.

What is the way forward?

  • The current efforts by India could burnish its image as matured world power. However, there is a need to carry over the momentum into the post-COVID era.
  • There is a need to increase self-sufficiency in terms of API productions.
  • Supplying quality medical equipment like masks and other PPE and also drugs will increase the market visibility for India’s pharma sector. This might serve as a ladder for India to climb up from being the 3rd largest pharmaceutical producer.
  • The situation may enable the presentation of an alternative Indian route to China’s BRI project in the IOR, especially as the Chinese assistance had proven to be debt traps.
  • There is a need to look into alternative forms of economy such as shifting trade onto the virtual platform and development of sectors that are especially relevant during the current crisis (such as the medical equipment manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, telecommunication, textile industry, etc.). This may help India maintain economic- independence (an important criterion for success in international relations) in the coming days.
  • World leaders have called for the provision of patent-free vaccines and treatment for COVID-19. India is one of the signatories. This has to be brought into fruition.
  • Continued cooperation with other countries and international bodies for R&D is essential as such pandemics are bound to occur in the future too. These research collaborations will ensure better preparedness in terms of treatment methods. Such joint efforts are more likely to yield effective vaccines.
  • There is a need to look into bio-security issues. Disease surveillance- at national as well as international level- is vital to ensure protection against epidemics.


The pandemic has proven to be one of the major disruptive events for Indian diplomacy. Steps taken till date has shown Indian foreign policy’s propensity to convert challenges into opportunities. One lesson learnt from the current crisis is that cooperative effort is a more effective tool than ‘my nation first’ policy.

Practice Question for Mains

The COVID-19 situation has changed the way diplomacy is conducted among nations. How has India adapted to the sudden changes in international relations? (250 word)

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