The Biden administration’s initial response to India’s second wave of coronavirus alarmed U.S. business leaders with close ties to the country, some of whom have mobilized their own aid efforts out of fear Washington will act too much slowly.
Several business leaders told the Financial Times that they felt U.S. officials were not paying enough attention during a critical week in late April, when cases and deaths in India rose sharply.
India suffers from a higher rate of coronavirus infection than anywhere else at any time of the pandemic, with official records showing an average of 370,000 new cases and 3,300 deaths per day. Many experts believe that the real number is much higher.
The White House has announced a support program including oxygen, protective gear and vaccines for India, which is an important US partner.
But some people in U.S. businesses have said they need to pressure the Biden administration to act even if other countries are lining up with offers of help. Two of them suggested that the White House instead focus on hosting a two-day global climate summit, starting April 22.
“We were trying to get Biden’s attention, but for a while the White House was more focused on the climate summit going on at the time,” said Mukesh Aghi, chief executive of US-India. Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), a group of companies. .
Nisha Biswal, head of the Indian Affairs Council, said: “They were dealing with 40 heads of state at the time at the climate summit. We were completely seized with what was going on in India and we were determined to make sure that the White House was completely seized with it as well.
U.S. officials denied being distracted by the climate summit and said they were working hard behind the scenes, but a senior administration official admitted at one point that the administration had “been keen to communicate. proactively ”until she has coordinated a strong package with the Indian government. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, held an April 20 appeal with U.S. groups representing the Indian diaspora to discuss charitable donations, people familiar with the matter said.
“[W]We believe that a message without tangible examples of support would not be well received given the scale of the crisis. In retrospect, we can see how this could have been misinterpreted as silence, but of course that was never our intention, ”said the senior administration official.
But in public, officials have indicated that US needs should come first. State Department spokesperson Ned Price provoked anger in India on April 22, saying that the United States was “first and foremost. . . engaged in an ambitious, effective and so far successful effort to immunize the American people ”.
India has always been reluctant to make requests for public aid, but that week other countries made well-received offers of support. Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, “China is ready to provide support and assistance according to India’s needs.” Indian media reported that Russia, UK, France and Germany are all offering to supply oxygen manufacturing equipment.
In the meantime, American business leaders with ties to India were working on their own plans to supply India.
Ajay Banga, Chairman of Mastercard, Shantanu Narayen, Managing Director of Adobe, and Satya Nadella, Managing Director of Microsoft, began to email each other about what was happening in their country of birth. The three had studied together in Hyderabad and were concerned about reports that Indian hospitals were running out of essential supplies such as oxygen.
The three executives contacted more than a dozen other multinational leaders, as well as groups such as the USISPF, to help coordinate a response.
Many of the companies involved had significant operations in India. Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture, which employs 200,000 people nationwide, has been one of those most involved, according to people familiar with the discussions.
“We could see what was happening because it was happening to our staff,” said a US-based executive whose company employs more than 100,000 people in India. “We had so many people called sick that we started to worry about our operations.”
The business leaders agreed to their own package, which Punit Renjen, CEO of Deloitte, described in a LinkedIn post on April 26. Deloitte pledged 12,000 oxygen concentrators, Mastercard said it would pay for 1,000 more expensive oxygen generators and 2,000 hospital beds, and Boeing offered $ 10. m in relief. The USISPF said it found 11 cryogenic containers to help store and transport vital oxygen supplies.
On Friday, April 23, the USISPF also sent letters to Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, the White House Asia Coordinator, and Sullivan urging them to intervene. The Indian Embassy in Washington on the same day submitted a request detailing a list of oxygen equipment needs to the US State Department for donation to the Indian Red Cross Society, according to people familiar with the matter.
On April 23, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki discussed US efforts to support India, but it “was unsuccessful due to the late hour in India. “, According to the senior administration official. Senior U.S. officials then issued public statements of support late on the evening of April 24. The next day, the administration announced that it would be sending therapeutics, test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India, and that it was exploring other ways to deliver oxygen. emergency ”.
Gayle Smith, the State Department’s coordinator for the global Covid-19 response, said: “We have had interagency teams working across government, including over the weekend and through Friday night, to do whatever we can to fix it. [India’s] requirements as quickly as possible. “
President Joe Biden and Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, spoke by phone on Monday, April 26, after which the White House announced it would export 60 million doses of unused Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine to the world. Biden later said he expected India to be one of the beneficiaries.
By the end of last week, the equipment had started arriving by air, which officials on both sides said has helped ensure the long-term strength of the US-India relationship.
“We loaded planes full of supplies delivered to Indians in large part because we believe it is the right thing and the right thing to do,” Sullivan told the Financial Times.
An official at the Indian Embassy in Washington said the country appreciates US support for India’s efforts to contain the pandemic. But Alyssa Ayres, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said: “The delayed response time will likely be remembered, at least for a while, in India.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York