A wave of coronavirus infections is spreading beyond India to its neighbors, creating an opening for China to make inroads into an area New Delhi sees as its backyard by providing vaccines and medical assistance .
Cases in Nepal have jumped to more than 3,000 per day from less than 100 in March, as alarms rise over strains first identified in India and the UK. The percentage of positive tests, a sign that the spread of the virus is accelerating, has climbed to 25%, more than in India.
Bangladesh is also facing an increase in cases, although its daily infections have fallen from a peak this month to around 3,500. Cases are also increasing in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
As recently as last month, India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, was poised to consolidate its position as a regional powerhouse by providing jabs to its neighbors.
But its second Covid-19 wave was so brutal that India has halted almost all vaccine exports and is relying on foreign medical assistance. India reported another world record of 360,000 infections in a single day on Wednesday and became the fourth country to surpass 200,000 total deaths. Experts believe the toll is much higher.
China has acted quickly to fill the void as anxiety grows in countries dependent on Indian-made gunfire.
After a video conference between Chinese and regional foreign ministers – excluding India – on Tuesday, Bangladesh said it had asked China to provide it with vaccines as soon as possible. Nepal said Beijing donated medical supplies and equipment.
Analysts said chaos in India gave China an advantage in a long competition for regional influence that intensified during the pandemic.
“It’s a boxing match with so many rounds,” Constantino Xavier, senior fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress, a New Delhi think tank. “Now India is on the defensive, and China is hitting harder, making the most of India’s domestic concerns.”
Indian authorities have introduced a series of local lockdowns, most recently in the Bangalore tech hub, as they struggled to cope with the deluge of cases and acute oxygen shortages.
The US, UK, EU and other allies have sent oxygen, vaccines and other life-saving medical supplies.
Before the start of the second wave, India exported around 20 million doses of vaccine to its immediate neighbors. Some of these doses were donated while others were purchased under commercial contracts, including enough for little Bhutan to inoculate nearly all of its adult population.
During a visit to Bangladesh last month, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, donated 1.2 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.
But India’s eastern neighbor has since joined countries closing their borders over fears the latest outbreak could worsen the number of national cases.
“The disruption of critical vaccine supplies may have fueled neighbors’ concerns about India’s dependence,” Xavier said.
Nepal, which shares a long border with India, is particularly sensitive to transmission from its neighbor.
Even Gyanendra Shah, the country’s former king, was not spared. He tested positive after returning from a trip to Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival in India attended by millions on the banks of the Ganges.
His wife, the former Queen of Nepal Komal Shah, was also infected. The couple are said to be in stable condition.
In Pakistan, China has already played a leading role in providing millions of vaccines. A senior government official said up to 2 million more shots are expected to arrive on Thursday.
India’s bitter rival reports more than 5,000 cases a day and has deployed the military to enforce safeguards against the spread of Covid-19.
“If our situation becomes the same as in India, then we will have to close cities,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week. “We cannot do this because, as we have seen before, it is the poor who suffer the most when lockdowns are imposed.”