The Biden administration’s initial response to the second coronavirus wave in India alarmed US business leaders with strong ties to the country, some of whom mobilised their own aid efforts for fear that Washington was acting too slowly.
Several business leaders have told the Financial Times they felt US officials were not paying enough attention during a critical week in late April when India’s cases and deaths were climbing steeply.
India is suffering a higher rate of coronavirus infection than anywhere else at any point during the pandemic, with official records showing an average of 370,000 new cases and 3,300 deaths a day. Many experts estimate the true number is far greater.
The White House has announced a support package including oxygen, protective equipment and vaccine materials for India, which is an important US partner.
But some people in corporate America said they had to put pressure on the Biden administration to act even while other countries were lining up with offers of help. Two suggested that the White House was instead focused on hosting a global climate summit that took place over two days, 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 happening at the time,” said Mukesh Aghi, chief executive of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), a corporate group.
Nisha Biswal, the head of the US-India Business Council, said: “They were dealing with 40 heads of state at the time during the climate summit. We were completely seized with what was happening in India, and we were determined to make sure the White House was completely seized with it too.”
US officials denied they were distracted by the climate summit and said they were working hard behind the scenes, but a senior administration official acknowledged the administration at one point “held on proactively communicating” until it had co-ordinated a strong package with India’s government. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, held a call on April 20 with US groups representing the Indian diaspora to discuss charitable donations, according to people familiar with the matter.
“[W]e thought a message without tangible examples of support would not be received well given the scale of the crisis. In retrospect we can see how that might have been misunderstood as silence, but of course that was never our intent,” said the senior administration official.
But in public, officials indicated American needs should come first. Ned Price, a state department spokesman, provoked anger in India on April 22 by saying the US was “first and foremost . . . engaged in an ambitious, effective and so far successful effort to vaccinate the American people”.
India has historically been reluctant to make public requests for aid, but that week other countries came forward with well-received offers of support. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said: “China is ready to provide support and help according to India’s need.” Indian media was reporting that Russia, the UK, France and Germany were all offering to supply oxygen-making equipment.
In the meantime, US corporate leaders with ties to India were working on their own plans to bring supplies to India.
Ajay Banga, chair of Mastercard, Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of Adobe, and Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, began emailing 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 crucial supplies such as oxygen.
The three executives contacted over a dozen other heads of multinationals, as well as groups such as the USISPF, to help co-ordinate a response.
Many of the companies involved had significant operations in India. Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture, which employs 200,000 people in the country, was one of those most heavily involved, according to people briefed on the talks.
“We could see what was happening because it was happening to our staff,” said a US-based executive whose company employs over 100,000 people in India. “We had so many people calling in sick we started to get worried about our operations.”
Business leaders agreed their own package, which Punit Renjen, Deloitte chief executive, outlined in a LinkedIn post on April 26. Deloitte promised 12,000 oxygen concentrators, Mastercard said it would pay for 1,000 more expensive oxygen generators and 2,000 hospital beds, and Boeing offered $10m 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 co-ordinator, and Sullivan to urge them to step in. The Indian embassy in Washington on the same day submitted a request detailing a list of oxygen equipment needs to US state department for donation to the Indian Red Cross Society, according to people familiar with the matter.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki discussed US efforts to support India on April 23 but it “didn’t get traction due to the late hour in India”, according to the senior administration official. Top US officials then issued public statements of support late on the evening of April 24. The following day, the administration announced it was sending therapeutics, test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India, as well as exploring other ways to provide oxygen “on an urgent basis”.
Gayle Smith, the state department co-ordinator for the global Covid-19 response, said: “We had inter-agency teams working across the government, including through the weekend and all night Friday night, to do everything we could to address [India’s] requirements as quickly as possible.”
President Joe Biden and Narendra Modi, Indian prime minister, spoke over the telephone on Monday, April 26, after which the White House said it would export 60m doses of unused Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines around the world. Biden later said he expected India to be one of the recipients.
By the end of last week, equipment had begun to arrive by the planeload, which officials on both sides say has helped ensure the long-term strength of the US-India relationship.
“We’ve loaded up planes full of supplies delivered to the Indian people in no small part because we believe that is the right and good thing to do,” Sullivan told the Financial Times.
An Indian embassy official in Washington said the country appreciated US support in 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 is likely to be remembered, at least for a bit, in India.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York