Of US President Donald Trump’s many outrageous acts, few rival his threat to impose economic sanctions on India unless it lifts its ban on export of hydroxychloroquine — a drug used to combat malaria, lupus and auto-immune diseases — and supply it to the US instead. The raw material for the Indian production of this drug comes mainly from China, whose lockdowns have badly disrupted supplies. To save lives, India has restricted or banned the export of this and several other essential drugs.
Medical experts have repeatedly said there is no evidence that this drug will combat Covid-19. Clinical trials will take time to deliver a verdict. Yet Trump is so convinced that the drug works that he has twisted India’s arm to supply to the US. Modi has agreed to lift the export ban, examine how much of the drug is needed for different purposes, and then permit exports on a case-by-case basis. Trump boasts this is a personal victory.
I unhesitatingly call Trump a monster who wants us to act as though American lives are more valuable than Indian ones. Indian diplomats have to be more circumspect in word and deed. But they must seize the opportunity to ensure a diplomatic payback. In return, Trump should restore duty-free entry into the US of $ 6.2 billion of Indian exports under the generalised system of preferences (GSP), a privilege he cut off in 2018. Many hoped for a trade deal restoring GSP during Trump’s visit to India in January, but in vain. India now has the leverage to make it happen.
I would love to send the following note to Trump. “Perhaps you will try anything — including unproven drugs — to improve your re-election chances. Or maybe you genuinely believe in the magical healing powers of hydroxychloroquine. But even if clinical trials ultimately prove that the drug works, that will surely be the strongest possible argument for India to maintain its export ban and preserve scarce supplies to save Indian lives. Since India’s population is four times higher than America’s, India needs anti-Covid-19 drugs more than the USA. You yourself used the US Defence Production Act to ban the export of respirators by 3M to meet US domestic needs. If the US needs such bans, why not India too?
“On the other hand, consider the possibility — backed by almost all medical experts — that the drug will not work. In that case neither American nor Indian Covid-19 victims will be affected. But millions of Indians also sufer from malaria, lupus arthritis and auto-immune diseases, all of which require this drug. To deprive millions of Indian sufferers to improve your re-election chances is a moral outrage.”
Modi and Indian diplomats cannot be so frank. They have to treat this as a diplomatic issue, not just a moral one. They could send this note.
“We are grief-stricken that Americans are threatened with disease and death by a virus originating in China, which deserves harsh condemnation for suppressing the initial news of the virus, permitting much faster transmission to the US and India. Despite our low income and limited resources, we have always believed in trying to help the US wherever possible, to strengthen links between the world’s two greatest democracies. We are desperately short of many essential drugs to combat malaria, lupus, and auto-immune diseases, and so have banned their export. But we are happy to make an exception for the United States.
However, we have serious needs too. The virus has forced us to shut down entire cities and industries, putting millions out of work. Millions had earlier lost their jobs when the US withdrew GSP. We have been working on a trade deal to restore GSP, but that has not yet succeeded due to other preoccupations.
Now Covid-19 gives us both a chance to take this issue to the centre stage. We will sacrifice and share with you drugs we ourselves desperately need. But we hope this will enable you to overcome forces opposed to the restoration of GSP.
We were pained that you said publicly that if we had not supplied the drug, we would have been subjected to sanctions. We trust that was mainly political theatre. As we both know, the US now has almost 4 million people of Indian origin. Their votes could make the difference between victory and defeat in the coming US presidential election. Their votes cannot be won by threatening sanctions against India. But they will surely respond favourably to an amicable deal whereby India supplies you with a life-saving drug and you restore GSP to help millions of Indians in distress.”