Yes, they are also front line workers.

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Thank you, Modi, for reminding us

Dr Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Former director UNEP, IIT Alumnus

We had forgotten them in pandemic pandemonium. But make no mistake, they are also front-line workers. UN peacekeeping forces provide the most needed global security services. In 2020, they provided security and stability so that the governments, business and NGOs focus on the efforts to contain and address the planetary crisis-COVD19 pandemic.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new type of Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19 respiratory disease, a pandemic. Within a fortnight, on March 23rd 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued an urgent appeal for a global ceasefire for the armed conflicts in all corners of the world to enable the countries to focus together on the true fight–defeating COVID-19. At that time globally more than 40-armed conflicts were causing the drain of resource and loss of lives.

Eleven countries locked in long-term conflicts responded to a UN call for a worldwide ceasefire. Since March 2020, 180 countries, the Security Council, regional organizations, civil society groups, peace advocates and millions of global citizens have endorsed the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. That was the result of an online petition organised by Awaz. Guterres said, “to silence the guns, we must raise the voices for peace”. UN repeated the same call at the start of the 75th UN General Assembly session in September 2020. Silencing the guns can not only support the fight against COVID-19 but also create opportunities for life-saving aid, open windows for diplomacy and bring hope to people suffering in conflict zones that are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

But there is a big gap between ‘endorsing the call’ and ‘implementation on the ground’. There are enormous difficulties in implementing the ceasefire as conflicts have festered for years, distrust among the countries is deep, with many spoilers and many suspicions. A number of conflicts continued and UN peace-keeping forces, provided to the UN by the countries like Bangladesh and India continued their hard work. These real ‘front-line workers’ – peacekeeping forces-continued to get exposed to COVID19 in the most gruelling circumstances.

During the UN Security Council’s open debate on the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020) on the cessation of hostilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar made a striking offer. “Keeping in mind the UN Peacekeepers who operate in such difficult circumstances, India would like to announce a gift of 200,000 doses for them.” Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, well known Hindu Scripture, Jaishankar had said “Do your work, with the welfare of others always in mind.”

The 200,000 doses essentially mean that it will be possible to administer the required double doses of COVID-19 vaccines to all UN peacekeepers across missions. According to UN Peacekeeping, as of January 31, 2021, a total of 85,782 personnel are serving in 12 major peacekeeping operations across the world led by the Department of Peace Operations of the UN.

A total of 121 nations are contributing uniformed personnel to the UN peacekeeping missions. India is traditionally among the largest troop-contributing countries to peacekeeping missions.

200,000 doses, being manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India, in collaboration with Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, departed Mumbai via Qatar Airways on March 27. The shipment headed to Copenhagen, where it will be safely stored in a facility, re-packaged and quickly distributed to peacekeeping missions for the peacekeepers.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said that he is “extremely grateful” for the gift of 200,000 COVID19 vaccine doses for UN peacekeepers announced by India, the world’s biggest drug-maker and pharmacy. Under India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ ( roughly translated as ‘Vaccine Friendship’ ) initiative, Vaccines are being airlifted to nations across the world – from India’s immediate neighbours to distant countries in Latin America and Africa. More than 58 million-Made in India-coronavirus vaccine doses have reached out to about 70 countries in recent weeks.

India’s initiative in supplying vaccines to UN peacekeeping-forces and also to a large number of poor countries is a masterstroke of Modi’s government in Vaccine Diplomacy. There has been unfortunate inequality in the distribution of vaccines and a sad trend in hoarding the vaccines. Antonio Guterres was more vocal and direct on 17 February when he addressed the high-level meeting of the UN Security Council. He sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. He lamented that 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all vaccinations and that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine. That clearly demonstrated how selfish and nationalistic the world leaders would be in case of another planetary-scale chaos, runaway climate crisis, for example. Guterres demanded a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible. That sounds like a dream recognising self -cantered rich countries. ‘Vaccine Equity is the biggest moral test before the global community, was his candid remark.

One can criticize the World Health Organization for its delays in declaring pandemic or not holing outsource of Coronavirus, but no one can find fault with its COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the umbrella project of WHO-Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. It is a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. COVAX is the vaccine pillar of ACT and is co-led WHO,

UNICEF among others. Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

Leaving large sections of the world unattended would provide the virus with an opportunity to spread faster. Virus and their later mutated generations do not recognise the national boundaries and do not need a visa to enter rich countries, thanks to the globalised world. Bill Gates has rightly supported WHO’s statement that “With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe unless everyone is safe’.

COVAX has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. Yet another goal of finances needed for COVAX of $5 billion in 2021 is likely to be missed in this chaos of ‘vaccine nationalism’. In addition the ACT (Access to COVID-19 Tools)

Accelerator’s initial needs for 2020-2021 were the US $38.1 billion. Pledges till March 2021 has reduced the gap in funding to the US $22.9 billion. The next few months of April-May-2021 will be critical for the global COVID-19 response. Further commitments are needed to fully fund the work of the ACT-Accelerator and enable the delivery of more than 2 billion doses of vaccine; medical oxygen and millions of treatment doses and over 900 million diagnostic tests. The new rapidly emerging area of R&D would be the speed and type of mutations of SARS-CoV-2. Hence further funding needed, as per WHO. Global response to such needs is still lukewarm.

It is evident that India’s PM Modi’s pledge and fulfilling the promises given in the pledge stands out and serves as an example to other nations. United Nations has gone on record with the statement, “This important donation ( by India) will allow us to ensure that UN peacekeepers are able to remain healthy and deliver in some of the most difficult environments in the world without relying on already stretched national health systems or ongoing COVAX efforts.”

Modi, who invariably spends the festival of Diwali with India’s armed forces that protect the nation in the most challenging terrain, knows well that ‘protecting those who protect us’ is never ever so important. Such action strengthens his words “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’. The world is a family. END

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