BRICS with a Capital C: How Covid robbed members of economic advantage


Foreign leaders at BRICS virtual meeting hosted by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on 1 June, 2021 | Twitter @DrSJaishankar


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The details of the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting and the breakdown of its outcome by strategic analysts of respective member countries will take time to be out in public. But in the meantime, it appears safe to say that the virtual meeting between the five foreign ministers successfully concluded its agenda in the given circumstances. That the Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant catastrophe were top on the agenda was evident.

Held under the Indian presidency, the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting discussed the Covid-19 challenge threadbare. Its endorsement of India and South Africa’s proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines needs to be followed up and taken to its logical conclusion. The waiver on certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement will help developing economies get wider access to technologies that are essential for conducting tests, better and faster diagnosis, and increasing vaccine production for treatment of Covid-19.

South African minister Naledi Pandor summed up the essence of the issue, saying “none of us are safe until all of us are safe.” There is an urgent need to “address the global gap in vaccine’s access” to realise such an ambitious goal. A WTO-supported TRIPS Covid-19 vaccine Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) waiver will ease the pandemic situation, allow countries to return to normalcy and reset the economic agenda.


Also read: BRICS is all about geopolitics, not economics


BRICS falls short in Covid fight

The US and the WTO were not very enthusiastic but earlier demands by India for such a waiver was strongly supported by a large section of the intellectuals including Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Doubts regarding the waiver being granted persist, as the global pharma lobby is not very supportive of such a move. Again, assuming that a limited waiver is made available, it will be a herculean task to set up state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in a short time and undertake mass production of vaccines.

It is also surprising that two members of the BRICS, China and Russia, are vaccine manufacturers themselves, but never came forward to share the formula with or waive IPR regulations for other BRICS members. So much for the cooperation in the fight against the Covid pandemic!

In this background, the comments by the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi expressing solidarity with India sounds very much like mere lip service. “Let me begin by expressing my sympathy to India over the severe impact of the new wave of COVID-19 infections. In these trying times, China stands in solidarity with India and all BRICS countries,” he said. While the world is yet to summon enough courage to confront China on the origins of the coronavirus, China is audacious enough to comment on the ‘new wave of Covid-19 infections in India’ even as names such as British variant, South African variant and Indian variant are doing the rounds. It is nobody’s argument that at a forum like BRICS, there should not be any blame game. But China seems to have had its way and got away unrepentant.  

The Chinese foreign minister is also reported to have said that BRICS “now faces the profound and complex ramifications of the pandemic and changes unseen in a century. At the same time, opportunity may arise from the challenge.” It is understandable that he is referring to economic opportunities.


Also read: World is back to being bipolar but India may be on its own


China at top, Covid strikes others down

Since the time the term BRIC was coined in 2001 (by Goldman Sachs), there has been a gradual effort towards integrating these four economies. After the first foreign ministers’ summit in 2006, BRIC began to look for development partners and found in South Africa a suitable candidate. Thus came BRICS in 2010.

As was envisaged, the BRICS countries not only played a significant role in supporting the global economy but contributed 36.3 per cent of world GDP growth in the first decade of this century and represent one-fourth of the global economy (in purchasing power parity, or PPP). According to one baseline projection, BRICS was likely to have overtaken the US economy by 2018 and account for two-thirds of the global economy by contributing about half of GDP growth.

A quick look at these projections will point to the exponential growth of China in economic terms while the rest of the BRICS members were left behind. To add to the woes of other members, the Covid-19 pandemic has robbed whatever little economic advantage they could have gained in the prevailing situation. Given the present uncertainties arising out of the pandemic, New Delhi needs to think out of the box, look for policy alternatives and rope in a large number of experts outside of the government to tide over the economic downturn and looming unemployment crisis.

In this regard, the reports about the thrust of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to make its outreach to international audiences more vibrant and develop a pool of domain experts to communicate India’s views to the world are an important move. By the time New Delhi gets ready to host the G20 summit in 2023, the Indian economy should turn a new leaf and become a major economy. Meanwhile, the central government should turn its focus on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and the BIMSTEC as effective platforms to increase South-South cooperation and build a strong and sustainable economic link between Asia and Africa.

Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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