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‘Potential of Indo-US cooperation will be key to combating pandemic’

Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council. ((Image credit: US embassy))Premium
Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council. ((Image credit: US embassy))

In the past several weeks, US based-companies have come together to provide immediate assistance to those suffering in India, donating critical medical supplies including ventilators and oxygen concentrators, says Nisha Biswal, president of the US-India Business Council

NEW DELHI: Almost two weeks ago, US industry representatives from various umbrella groups came together to announce a unique platform to send assistance to India which is battling a devastating second wave of covid-19 infections. The “Global Task Force on Pandemic Response: Mobilizing for India" is an “unparalleled effort by Corporate America" says Nisha Biswal, who is senior vice president for international strategy at the US Chamber of Commerce and president of the US India Business Council. This is because the US sees India as one of its “anchor partners" in the Indo-Pacific region, Biswal says. Here are edited excerpts from an interview:

Can you please tell us how the global task force for India came about?

When covid-19 was first declared a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) was tracking 118,000 cases in 114 countries. Since then, covid-19 has claimed more than 3 million lives globally. With cases rising once more, many countries are in need of immediate assistance.

In the past several weeks, US based-companies have come together to provide immediate assistance to those suffering in India, donating critical medical supplies including ventilators and oxygen concentrators. But we realized, a coordinated approach was required to leverage the massive capacities of governments and the private sector. For example, the Global Task Force on Pandemic Response is looking to catalyze and streamline the ongoing mechanism for the private sector to mobilize private assistance, in sync with governments and non-profit organizations.

This effort is organized by the US Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Business Roundtable, working with the Chamber’s US-India Business Council and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on India mobilization.

The task force is rather unique, isn’t it? This is the first time in the covid-era that such a country-specific task force has been created. Can you recall when was the last time such a task force was created?

This is truly an unparalleled effort by Corporate America that we are witnessing today and there is no doubt that the concerns facing India will not stay in India for long. There are implications beyond India that we need to be preparing for. Going forward, the task force will support other hotspots in consultation with US government to generate maximum impact.

What does the task force, which brings together the US government and US businesses, say about the relationship between India and US?

It is safe to say that India has become one of America’s anchor partners in the Indo-Pacific region. The potential of Indo–US cooperation will play a paramount role in global efforts in combating the virus. Last year, around the same time when US was struggling, India had sent several million doses of the hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to the US as part of its humanitarian gesture. While we have turned a corner in our efforts to combat the pandemic, our global partners, especially India is facing a staggering health crisis that requires a substantial public-private response.

In less than a week, corporate contributions from 15 companies were matched with the production, end-to-end delivery, and installation capabilities of our partner firm Medtronic, facilitating the supply of 1,000 ventilators to hospital intensive care units (ICUs) across India. Together, these businesses will provide over $30 million in support for India’s healthcare response, joining the dozens of businesses who have pledged their support in efforts to provide oxygen concentrators, develop information and best practices to support employees in India, and more.

Coming back to the task force, could you name some members on it?

The coalition of leading companies, non-profits and associations that have come together to support these actions include Accenture, Adobe, Amazon, American Express, Amway, Apple, Applied Materials Foundation, Bank of America, BCG, Citi, David & Carol Van Andel Family Foundation, Dell, Deloitte, Dow, Ernst & Young, Emerson, Facebook, FedEx, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, John Chambers Foundation, Johnson Controls, JP Morgan Chase & Co, KKR, Lockheed Martin, Mastercard, McKinsey & Company, Medtronic, Merck, Microsoft, Nasdaq, Newsweek, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Qualcomm Foundation, Raytheon Technologies, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, VIAVI Solutions, VMware, Walmart and Zoom.

We also have a steering committee to provide leadership and guidance on the task force’s activities, including corporate leaders like Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture; Andy Jassy, CEO, Amazon Web Services; Gail McGovern, President and CEO, American Red Cross; Tim Cook, CEO, Apple; Brian Moynihan, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Bank of America; Mike Parra, CEO Americas, DHL Express; Jim Fitterling, Chairman and CEO, Dow; Raj Subramaniam, President, Chief Operating Officer, and Director, FedEx; Sundar Pichai CEO, Alphabet Inc and Google; Arvind Krishna, Chairman and CEO, IBM; Alex Gorsky, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Johnson & Johnson; Michael Miebach, CEO, Mastercard; Geoff Martha, Chairman and CEO, Medtronic; Brad Smith, President, Microsoft; Ramon Laguarta, Chairman of the Board and CEO, PepsiCo; Carol Tomé, CEO, UPS; Sanjay Poonen, COO, VMware; and Judith McKenna, President and CEO, Walmart International.

What role has the American-Indian community played in mobilizing support for India and also getting the task force together? You yourself are said to have played an important role in getting India’s problems to the attention of the highest levels of US government.

We have been monitoring the situation in India closely, and urged the administration to release AstraZeneca vaccines to India immediately as cases started to show an upward trend last month. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and USIBC were aware of the impact on workers and knew that action was needed. Once we raised these concerns at a senior level, the US government moved rapidly to mobilize its own response.

Now that a lot of assistance from the US has already come in, is coordination is a problem?

We have strong coordination with Government of India, and are working closely with NITI Aayog, ministry of health and other dedicated nodal officers in ministries. I can assure you that so far we have not faced any hurdles in terms of coordination. This week, we had a productive conversation with NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant and are aligned to bridge the gap further.

The first shipment of ventilators landed in India on May 5, with additional shipments to ventilators expected to reach India by June 3. In coordination with the Government of India, they will be assembled and shipped to designated healthcare facilities for immediate use.

However, as there is a massive flow of supplies into the country, we are prepared to support the government efforts with private sector capacity, if that becomes necessary.

India’s Serum Institute has asked for raw materials to manufacture Novavax’s Covovax vaccine. However, what I understand is the permission for this has not yet come. Do you think this is something that could be speedily addressed? You have said that India is important in the supply-chain context as well as being “ground zero" for the pandemic.

Our understanding is that the US government has been sourcing raw materials requested by the Serum Institute but I would refer you to the US government for greater clarity on that.

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