Dr. V. K. Paul, Member, Niti Aayog,
Shri Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary (Health & Family Welfare),
Shri Dammu Ravi, Secretary (ER), Ministry of External Affairs,
Amb. Vijay Thakur Singh, Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs,
Shri Sumit Seth, Joint Secretary (PP&R), Ministry of External Affairs,
Colleagues and friends,
Namaskar and good evening.
I am delighted to speak at the launch of the publication on ‘Indian Diplomacy and COVID Response’. I thank the Indian Council of World Affairs for bringing out the publication in association with the Ministry of External Affairs. My thanks also to Shri Anupam Ray, former Joint Secretary (PP&R) and currently India’s Permanent Representative to Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and Shri Sumit Seth, Joint Secretary (PP&R) who have contributed to the preparation of the publication.
2. COVID-19 presented us with extraordinary challenges. Its impact was felt in all facets of our national life. It was an unprecedented crisis. India’s response to this was marked by a whole-of-Government and a whole-of-society approach. Different parts of the Government came together to work in the form of multi-agency Empowered Groups. A Committee of Secretaries met practically on a daily basis and submitted its recommendations to a Group of Ministers which in turn sought guidance from the Hon’ble Prime Minister.
3. The Ministry of External Affairs, like the entire Government of India, adapted quickly to deal with the new realities of the pandemic. The publication, launched today, chronicles different aspects of the Ministry’s response.
4. Let me describe some of the broad features of this response.
5. First was its focus on ensuring the well-being of Indian nationals abroad. Our Missions and Posts extended full assistance to our nationals who were stranded abroad during the pandemic. We launched the Vande Bharat Mission – the largest such evacuation exercise in history, which brought home millions of Indian nationals by air, land and sea. We also worked with the diplomatic Missions in India to facilitate the evacuation of their nationals despite the difficulties imposed by the lockdown.
6. Another remarkable feature of the Indian response was "Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” in operation.
7. We shared medicines and pharmaceutical products, while prioritising our domestic requirements, to over 150 countries across the world. Indian healthcare and medical expertise was also made available to countries in its neighbourhood and beyond. This was followed by Vaccine Maitri which delivered vaccines to many parts of the world. As the Prime Minister had noted earlier this year, "..India, following the vision of ‘One Earth, One Health’, was saving crores of lives by providing necessary medicines and vaccines to many countries.”
8. The third major effort that I would like to bring to focus relates to procurement.
9. The COVID pandemic, as all of us are aware, went through several "waves”. The waves caused spikes in the case load and on the demand for medical services and medical products. The country confronted acute shortages of medical products and essential medical supplies. Their procurement thus became one of the greatest challenges faced by the Government in responding to the pandemic. Sourcing such products and supplies during a pandemic was, by necessity, a global effort.
10. An Empowered Group system was created by the Government to oversee this effort. Within the framework of this system, the Ministry participated in an interagency process that procured essential medical items required to overcome domestic shortages during both the first and second waves. Our network of Missions and Posts around the world were the global arm of this extraordinary procurement operation.
11. During the second wave, India also received support from its friends and partners. An enormous amount of goodwill obviously existed for India and was translated into material support. The challenge was to get the right kind of support to the right place at the right time. A logistical system had to be created to bring these supplies in, match supply with demand, and channel the supplies to where they were needed.
12. The entire operation was mounted without the benefit of any previous experience of a similar undertaking on a similar scale or involving similar volumes.
13. Another area to which I would like to draw your attention to, is vaccines. I have spoken of Vaccine Maitri. I would also like to refer to other facets of vaccine diplomacy. The Ministry and its Missions abroad worked to safeguard critical vaccine supply chains. They facilitated access to vaccines, vaccine technology and vaccine raw material for Indian entities. Indian manufacturing and research and development capacities were linked with markets and global institutions. Vaccine diplomacy also meant obtaining regulatory approvals and efforts to obtain TRIPS waivers.
14. The Ministry also adapted rapidly to a new world of digital and virtual diplomacy. Virtual meetings commenced within a week of the lockdowns and were kicked off with the G20 and South Asian leaders’ meetings. Virtual summits, virtual senior officials meetings, virtual multilateral and plurilateral meetings are now a part of a new normal.
15. India took several steps that placed it at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19. We joined and initiated a number of diplomatic initiatives to deal with various aspects of the pandemic.
16. The publication also highlights some administrative approaches employed by the Ministry to meet the demands that were placed on it. The demands varied and changed as the contours of the pandemic changed.
17. Firstly, the Ministry managed within existing resources. We were able to repurpose and re-engineer existing structures to deal with the unprecedented pressures.
18. This was achieved partly by delegation and outsourcing. Top leadership focussed on identifying broad challenges, delegating authority and creating empowered structures that could generate adequate solutions. We focussed on centralizing information while decentralizing action. This facilitated quick decision-making and rapid execution on a global scale.
19. Secondly, MEA adopted a matrix-structure - like that of start-ups and big-tech companies.
20. Existing chains of command were re-engineered and assigned specific pandemic related roles over and above their normal responsibilities. "Task forces”, dealing with specific issues without being named as such, emerged. This created a surge capacity within the Ministry that allowed it to scale up literally overnight to meet completely unexpected challenges. As challenges waxed and waned, the Ministry was able to deploy and redeploy resources to deal with stresses.
21. Existing coordination mechanisms that integrated and mobilized the Ministry's global network of Missions and Posts were repurposed and plugged into national networks dealing with domestic problems.
22. This facilitated a non-siloed approach when mounting joint operations. The Ministry and Embassies were able to work harmoniously, efficiently and effectively with Armed Forces, for instance, under severe constraints of time and operating freedom due to the restrictions and lockdowns.
23. Thirdly, a standalone COVID Cell was created in March 2020. It was headed by a senior officer and acted as an in-house coordination center and clearing house. Among other things it oversaw the 24/7 MEA Covid Control Room which had started working round the clock from 16 March 2020 onwards.
24. The COVID Cell and Control Room structure was scaled up and down according to requirements. It dealt successively with the various operational demands of the lockdowns, the first wave and then the second wave.
25. Fourthly, there was heavy reliance on technology. The Ministry created customized portals that allowed information sharing in real time. These are detailed in the publication.
26. Fifthly, policy was created "on the go.” The matrix structure soon organized itself into a number of verticals. These are reflected in the chapterisation of the publication. The verticals were able to identify problems and generate, in a cooperative manner, a number of procedures and policies. These were converted to Standard Operating Procedures and adopted on a system wide basis.
27. Uniformity in responses on a global scale therefore arose relatively swiftly.
28. Sixth, the Ministry and its external publicity and public diplomacy structures worked overtime in the information domain. The pandemic was, in some ways, also an infodemic. This imparted an enhanced importance and sensitivity to work in the media and information space.
29. There was global interest in how India was handling the pandemic. In some cases, lack of authentic and timely information was leading to negative speculation and misinformation. The Ministry was also deluged by information and visuals that did not provide a clear or comprehensive picture of the actual situation. Misinformation and disinformation had to be constantly monitored and, where appropriate, countered. Our outreach relevant to Ministry’s efforts was done on 24x7 basis in the virtual mode.
30. I would like to make a reference to the stresses and strains of maintaining this worldwide network in this time of disruptions. Officers and staff had to continue to operate across time zones and differing degrees of restrictions.
31. Like many such organisations, the Ministry had to keep its systems "running” over a massive geographical spread.
32. Officers and staff abroad often worked in very difficult circumstances.
33. We were, as I have said earlier, quick to adopt modern communication and technology to cope. The existing channels of communication within the Ministry and amongst officers across the world proved resilient.
34. Many Missions and officers displayed extraordinary initiative and found solutions for very difficult problems. The section of the publication that deals with the work of Missions provides details of many of these initiatives.
35. This is not the last crisis we will face. We need to institutionalise the lessons learnt and best practices from our response to the pandemic. In the Ministry of External Affairs. We have created structures such as a Rapid Response Cell that can surge capacities to deal with future crises.
36. The publication is an effort by us to describe how we tried our best. It is an effort to reflect, to preserve the lessons of the pandemic in our context, to identify what we can scale and replicate in future.
37. Before I conclude, I would like to take a moment to convey my gratitude to all our interlocutors from different Ministries and Departments as well as our own officers from the Ministry of External Affairs who worked very closely in dealing with this crisis.
38. First, I must thank Dr. V. K. Paul, Member, Niti Aayog who has played a key role in the Government’s efforts to fight the pandemic. I also wish to thank my colleague Shri Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary (Health & Family Welfare) who has been at the helm at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare during theses challenging times. I have had the privilege of working closely with both Dr Paul and Shri Bhushan in this period. I also thank two other key interlocutors, Ms S Aparna, Secretary (Pharma) and Shri Bharat Lal, Lokpal Secretary.
39. I would like to place on record my deep appreciation of the work done by officers and staff of MEA, many of whom have contributed to this publication, during this difficult period. Several of them went well above and beyond what was expected of them. I would like to thank in particular, Secretary (ER) in the Ministry of External Affairs, Shri Dammu Ravi, who headed the COVID Cell and was fully involved in Ministry’s efforts during this period. I thank Shri L. Ramesh Babu, Joint Secretary and Shri Satish Sivan, Joint Secretary who have handled the Rapid Response Cell in MEA. I must also thank the officer trainees from the 2019 batch of the Indian Foreign Service who manned the Control Room on 24x7 basis.
40. I wish to also thank all our officers who have contributed to this publication: Shri Vinay Kumar, our Ambassador to Myanmar; Shri Vikram Doraiswami, our High Commissioner in Bangladesh; Shri Naveen Srivastava, Additional Secretary (East Asia); Shri Nagesh Singh, Chief of Protocol; Shri Arindam Bagchi, Joint Secretary (XP); Shri Anurag Bhushan, Joint Secretary (OIA-I); Shri Jayant Khobragade, our Ambassdor to ASEAN; Shri G Balasubramaniam, Joint Secretary (Administration); Smt Devyani Khobragade, our Ambassador to Cambodia; and Dr S. Janakirama, our Ambassador to Cuba. My grateful thanks to the editorial/research team, from both MEA and ICWA, which consisted of: Rajesh Uike, Kiran Khatri, Jyotsna Mehra, Dyutimoy Seal, Tarang Jain, Shreya Bose, Gaurav Dutta, Vivek Mishra and Ankita Dutta.
41. Leadership provided by the Hon’ble Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minster in these difficult times has been inspirational. They have led from the front.
42. It has been a privilege for me to have been a part of this effort.