Switzerland extends assistance to India; breaks silence on covid vaccine patent wavier

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Sidhant SibalUpdated: May 07, 2021, 02:03 PM IST

Swiss Ambassador to India Dr. Ralf Heckner talks to WION Photograph:(WION)

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Along with the government, nearly 40 Swiss companies have come together and pledged medical relief for India’s fight against COVID-19

Switzerland, on Thursday, joined the league of countries that are extending assistance to India by sending 600 oxygen concentrators and 50 respirators worth $3.3 million approx.

The Swiss assistance comes as India battles the second wave of the covid pandemic. Speaking WION's Sidhant Sibal, Swiss Ambassador to India Dr Ralf Heckner said, "It is good to see not only the swiss government and the swiss people but also the Swiss private sector are stepping up. Lots of solidarity coming from Switzerland to India."

Nearly 40 Swiss companies have also come together and pledged medical relief worth over CHF 7 million for India’s fight against COVID-19. The medical relief package includes oxygen concentrators, rapid antigen test kits, ventilators, portable suction pumps and helmets with ventilation for medical staff.

Asked about concerns about the support reaching to various end-users, the envoy said, "In my own assessment, give the Indian government some more time to finalise the structures and processes."

Talking about the covid vaccine patent wavier, Heckner said, "With the decision of the US government, we have a new situation" and he assured that the "swiss government is assessing the new situation". 

WION: Switzerland has sent humanitarian aid to India. If you can provide us details of the assistance?
Dr Ralf Heckner: This is a huge crisis, a lot of people are suffering in India. On the other side, we see a lot of international solidarity. About 40 countries are providing relief package to India and I am happy to say Switzerland is among those countries. Last night swiss cargo flight landed in New Delhi with 13 tons of medical equipment. We had 600 oxygen concentrators onboard and 50 ventilators. Ventilators came from the stock of Swiss armed force — originally for the Swiss people. Now they are here to assist the suffering Indian population and humanitarian aid has arrived in India. I am happy this was done quickly and we handed over the goods to the Indian red cross society. 

WION: The private sector from Switzerland has also stepped in to help India. Can you give us more information on that?
Dr Ralf Heckner: Indeed the private sector is part and parcel of this solidarity coming from Switzerland. You might know Switzerland is one of the most important trade and investment partners of India. There are more than 300 Swiss businesses in India, 120 Indian businesses in Switzerland and they come together under the Swiss-India chamber of commerce. My embassy, together with the Swiss business hub in Mumbai with the Swiss India chamber of commerce, coordinated the relief package from the private sector. More than 30 swiss businesses are part of the relief package. The first cargo will arrive on Saturday morning in Delhi with 100 oxygen concentrators again. It is good to see not only the swiss government and the swiss people but also the Swiss private sector are stepping up. Lots of solidarity coming from Switzerland to India.

WION: The Swiss Development Agency worked with Indian cities to detect covid in wastewater systems. Can you tell us about that?
Dr Ralf Heckner: Last year when COVID stuck, the swiss development agency redirected programmes, projects, and funds in order to fight covid. That was also done here in India. Normally, the Swiss Development Agency in India is dealing with global warming and climate change. Last year, the Swiss development agency invested in projects that helped city authorities to detect covid early on in wastewater. It is an important early warning system for municipal authorities in order to detect covid early on — before you have people coming into hospitals. This is not only being done in India, but in swiss cities as well. Wastewater covid early detection system is very important for our policymakers at the municipal level to act early on during a covid crisis. 

WION: Any concerns about the end-use of humanitarian aid?
Dr Ralf Heckner: First and foremost it is important how this relief effort is being done. For this relief package from Switzerland, our partner here is the Indian Red Cross Society. So, the cargo last night was handed over to the Indian Red Cross Society, and our relief goods will be dispatched and distributed through the Ministry of Health. So, my embassy is not distributing the relief items.

Early in my career, I was head of the crisis management center of the Swiss federal department of foreign affairs where my job was to look after swiss citizens abroad in a crisis situation and I learned there that it needs time ahead of the beginning of the crisis to get the right structures and the right processes in place in order to be able to efficiently deal with and manage that crisis. That is exactly what I am seeing here now when it comes to the Indian government. The Indian government is setting up the right structures and the right processes when it comes to dealing with the crisis and also dispatching the incoming relief items. In my own assessment, give the Indian government some more time to finalise the structures and processes. 

WION: Any travel advisory for travellers coming from India?
Dr Ralf Heckner: One year ago, we changed our travel advice, but it is the same for more or less all the countries of the globe. The swiss authorities are advising the locals to only travel in case of necessity. That is the travel advisory that is in place for almost all countries of this planet and also for India. In that respect, we did not change our travel advisory when it comes to India.

WION: Is your government planning any evacuations for embassy officials? 
Dr Ralf Heckner: The foreign minister was very clear right at the beginning of the crisis that missions abroad have to remain functional. They have to work, and move on, and do their business. For that reason, the transferrable staff remains abroad and that is the policy that remains up to today.

We have all the staff members here in Delhi, transferrable staff members in Mumbai and Bangalore, who will stay in India. When it comes to the situation of my embassy and consular generals in Mumbai, there is the swiss business hub in Mumbai, the CG in Bangalore. We had to evacuate a transferrable staff member from Banglore to Switzerland because of COVID, two weeks ago.

When it comes to the situation here in the embassy, I have a number of local staff members who are ill in different stages of COVID. Luckily, no severe case has been reported yet.

Our covid measures are strict from the beginning. I arrived in September and have always kept very strict covid measures here at the embassy and that was the right decision. In early March I felt some of my staff members wanted to go back to normal and tried putting some pressure on me to change our covid mitigation measures, and I made it clear at the start of March that it was not the time to let down our guard. That situation in India reminds me of the situation of last summer in Europe. In October, with the cold coming in Europe, we had the start of a big wave in Europe and Switzerland. So, we remain very cautious and prudent when it comes to covid here at the embassy, in Banglore and Mumbai. 

WION: US has announced support for vaccine intellectual property right wavier. What is the Swiss government's stance?
Dr Ralf Heckner: With the decision of the US government, we have a new situation and that means that the Swiss government is assessing the new situation, and based on that we will take a position. So, I am aware this is happening now in Bern, and let us wait and see what the outcome will be.