India’s foreign ministry woke up to an oxygen crisis unfolding in New Delhi’s diplomatic community only on 1 May, issuing urgent late evening orders to deploy officials to its Covid Cell, hours before a Twitter dogfight over oxygen delivery to Philippines embassy by the youth wing of the opposition Congress party.
SHREEGIREESH JALIHAL/THE REPORTERS' COLLECTIVE
The next day, the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) delivered two oxygen cylinders to the embassy and released a video of the same. Later that night, senior Congress politician Jairam Ramesh congratulated his party’s youth wing for its service, tagging foreign minister S Jaishankar.
Taking a jibe at the government, Ramesh said, “While I thank @IYC for its stellar efforts, as an Indian citizen I’m stunned that the youth wing of the opposition party is attending to SOS calls from foreign embassies. Is the MEA sleeping @DrSJaishankar?”
The next morning, on 2 May, Jaishankar claimed on Twitter that the Philippines embassy had not sought the cylinders and the IYC had delivered it unsolicited as a publicity stunt.
“MEA checked with the Philippines Embassy. This was an unsolicited supply as they had no Covid cases,” Jaishankar tweeted. “Clearly for cheap publicity by you know who. Giving away cylinders like this when there are people in desperate need of oxygen is simply appalling.”
That was false, as tweets by the IYC, a now-deleted Facebook post by the embassy and confirmation from a foreign ministry official have revealed.
Government records available with Article 14 indicate that India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA) acted only after the IYC responded. It was only on the evening of 1 May that the ministry passed orders deploying an officer of the rank of joint secretary to head the Covid Cell.
The MEA said on 2 May that it was responding to the Covid-19 needs of high commissions and embassies. "The Chief of Protocol and Heads of Divisions are in continuous touch with all High Commissions/Embassies and MEA is responding to their medical demands, especially those related to Covid,” Arindam Bagchi, MEA spokesperson, said in a statement. “This includes facilitating their hospital treatment. Given the pandemic situation, all are urged not to hoard essential supplies, including oxygen."
On 3 and 4 May, over email and text messages, Article 14 sought comment from foreign minister Jaishankar and the MEA spokesperson on the ministry’s delayed reaction to the IYC response. There was no immediate response. We will update this story if they do respond.
The Covid Cell had been launched by the MEA in March 2020 to help Indians stranded abroad and foreigners visiting India. Its task was to coordinate with Indian missions abroad and embassies in New Delhi. The ministry’s urgent orders to revive the cell came only the day after one such embassy reached out to the Congress’ youth wing.
To add to Jaishankar’s embarrassment, a minute after he tweeted and less than 24 hours after the Covid cell had been reactivated, the New Zealand High Commission sought help from the IYC for oxygen.
The high commission subsequently deleted its tweet, though Prime Minister Jacinda Arden confirmed in a television interview on 3 May that the high commission did indeed need oxygen for a sick staffer.
Jaishankar’s online spat with Ramesh over oxygen delivery by the IYC team led by B V Srinivas came days after a virtual meeting where Jaishankar reportedly asked Indian diplomats to work towards building a “counter narrative” to critical news reports that have flooded the foreign press.
Just as the rest of Delhi has battled the failure of the government to provide oxygen to needy citizens, embassies too have reportedly faced the same difficulties for members of their staff.
On 28 April, Colonel Doctor Moses Beatus Mlula, a Tanzanian diplomat, was reported to have died after contracting Covid-19 in Delhi.
No Diplomatic Immunity
Speaking to Article 14 on condition of anonymity, a senior official at the MEA confirmed, “The Philippines embassy incidents happened on Friday, 30 April 30. Srinivas’s team delivered oxygen on 1 May, Saturday. MEA renewed the Covid Cell on 1 May in a late night order.”
“The Philippines did raise the issue before MEA on 30 April as well,” said the MEA official. “MEA was still trying to figure out how to respond. Meanwhile, the Philippines embassy, realising it's too late, welcomed Srinivas.”
This claim could not be independently verified by Article 14.
Srinivas, national president of the IYC, has been thanked by many (see here, here and here) on social media for mobilising his team of volunteers to provide help through social media where the state apparatus failed.
The Covid Cell’s main tasks revolved around the Vande Bharat mission, as we said, but its duties seemed to cover a wide ambit. Part of its task, according to public statements by government officials, even included “launching a global effort for procurement and supply chain enhancement”.
“Over time the Covid cell got redundant as the Vande Bharat idea fizzled out and normal air travel resumed,” the MEA official told Article 14. “There was a joint secretary in-charge then. But he was transferred. And now, we appointed one on 1 May.”
“This in the backdrop of at least two embassies making requests for Covid assistance,” the MEA official said. “For any foreign embassy, the first point of contact is the joint secretary or officers at what we term as ‘desks’ looking after specific countries or regions.”
The diplomatic community in India, meanwhile, has been facing hardships amidst the ongoing Covid-19 wave. Several embassies, including the US embassy, currently have active cases. Officials have complained that there is “no help coming in from the government” and added that they do not know whom to contact during emergencies.
“True, our first call should be to the Indian foreign ministry,” Mint quoted a diplomat as saying. “But after hearing the conditions in New Delhi, you want to get whatever help you can and the fastest way you can.”
(Shreegireesh Jalihal is a member of The Reporters’ Collective, a journalism collaborative that publishes in multiple languages and media.)