Sri Lanka’s struggle to contain the COVID-19 second wave has been a difficult one. The country’s virus control strategy has hit a roadblock, but that has not slowed down the pandemic diplomacy offers from the world’s biggest economies.
In August 2020 Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yuri B. Matri told Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena that Russia can provide its homemade Covid-19 vaccinations – the first of its kind to Sri Lanka. Two months later, in October former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi a Politburo member of Communist Party of China, according to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to consider cooperation with Sri Lanka once China’s COVID-19 vaccine is developed and approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO). US has donated Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) made in Sri Lanka multiple times so as to spur economic activity during the pandemic and so has India.
A pandemic should have united the world’s biggest powers. At least that is what Health Diplomacy or Disease Diplomacy thinkers thought. COVD-19 has defied that thinking, perhaps because it was not as deadly as pandemics from a century before. The COVAX programme which aims to ensure supply of COVID-19 vaccines to countries unable to afford them kick started few months ago without participation from China, Russia and US. COVAX is led by the WHO and The Center for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) founded by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the World Economic Forum. In October, China joined the initiative and is behind 4 of the 9 vaccine development programmes with at least one of them tested in UAE showing results. China has tried to reassure its ASEAN neighbours and Sri Lanka alike that they may be among priority recipients of their Vaccine Diplomacy, but this has made no impact on COVID-19 vulnerable populations who are trying to make ends meet.
The lie that COVID-19 has leveled the field for international cooperation has fallen flat on its face. Marginalised groups have been the hardest hit. Yes, some of the world’s most protected leaders, rich movie stars and sportspersons have come down with the virus, but lifesaving healthcare they received was poles apart from those who could not afford it. The poor still return to their cramped up households and pray that their loved ones do not come down with the virus – case in point the Minuwangoda dormitories of garment factory workers.
Until a vaccine is found and administered to save lives, countries like Sri Lanka will continue to be a testing ground for pandemic diplomacy, unless it invests to discover what it can offer to the world’s COVID-19 fight. The Ministry of Indigenous Medicine has developed several drugs to boost immunity which is claimed to have the ability to minimize infection risk in general can act as a defense measure against virus’ let alone COVID-19. Investments in research and development are crucial in exploring if Ayurveda immunity boosters are in fact viable in protecting against the virus. Sri Lanka also made a gaffe with claims that tea could act as immunity against the virus. Such unverified claims only resulted in damaging brand Ceylon Tea than building confidence of those desperate for a medical solution.
An equitable distribution of the vaccine, when one is found, will be a litmus test for COVAX’s success and the UN/WHO ability to deliver its global governance mandate. Sri Lanka boasts one of the best healthcare systems in South Asia and has potential to become a key player in pandemic diplomacy without being just another small state awaiting a consignment of COVID-19 relief to arrive in its shores. What is needed is a push from the government even via an external investor to support research that can make us a power worth listening to.