By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sections of the population in many of the 14 independent CARICOM countries are in grave danger of undermining their own health and economic interests by their refusal to be inoculated against the coronavirus, COVID-19.
At the time of writing (May 13), 159.5 million persons have been infected with the virus worldwide. Of this number, almost 3.4 million have died. Shockingly, the countries of the Americas from Canada to Argentina, including the Caribbean, account for almost half of the global infections and deaths – 64.1 million infections and 1.5 million deaths.
While this persistent rate of infections and deaths continues, the entire Hemisphere, except for the wealthiest nations, will continue to experience a health and economic crisis. All who yearn for a return to the pre-COVID period of unrestricted activity will not only endure an exceedingly long waiting period, but they will also experience increased numbers of infections and deaths. The latter will overburden already fatigued medical capabilities and strain morgue and burial facilities.
Figures from Caribbean countries are worrying, despite the efforts of governments and their medical authorities, to prevent infections and deaths. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) records community spread in 8 of the 14 independent CARICOM countries – Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. Cluster cases are registered in two countries, namely Antigua and Barbuda and The Bahamas. The other three countries – Dominica, Grenada and St Kitts-Nevis – report sporadic cases.
While it is not a magic bullet that will eliminate the coronavirus, the anti-COVID vaccine is the best solution for the people of CARICOM countries to save themselves, their families and their friends, and to place themselves in a position to recover from their present health and economic crises. Those who refuse to be vaccinated or propagandize against it, are endangering themselves and all who live in their countries. Indeed, they could be described as choosing to commit suicide and to take along with themselves many other people. This not only lacks good judgement in personal terms, but it is also a clear and present danger to their entire societies.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, all nations cried out for vaccines. The wealthier nations invested billions of dollars in the big pharmaceutical companies to develop and test vaccines. Four types were quickly developed and approved after extensive testing by AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. On May 7 the World Health Organization also approved the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine from China.
Fear has been expressed about taking any of these vaccines based on the relatively rapid rate in which they were developed in comparison with vaccine development in the past. This trepidation should take account of the fact, that unlike as in the past, science and technology have vastly improved, allowing for reliable results to be obtained faster. Further, at no previous time in human history has such large sums of money been devoted to the research and development of a vaccine.
Regarding those who take the simple view that they reject vaccines as unnecessary and harmful, Caribbean history reveals that what made Caribbean people survive and lead productive lives, were vaccines against mumps, measles, chicken pox, Hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, whooping cough, polio and tetanus (lockjaw). These vaccines were administered and accepted routinely because they saved lives. What those vaccines have done in the past, and still do, anti-COVID-19 vaccines can do today.
But, vaccination rates in CARICOM countries are too low. The anti-vaccination propaganda seems to have overtaken government information and education machinery – something governments must reverse swiftly, including by better use of social media platforms and by direct communication with influencers in communities.
Thus far in the vaccination success table, Antigua and Barbuda (31.74%), Barbados (26.9%), Dominica (26.2%), St Kitts-Nevis (24.3%), Guyana at 19.16%, and Grenada (11.1%) are the six leaders; all others are below 10% and four of them Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines are at less than 5%.
Where countries such as Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados have some vaccines, but people are falling prey to propaganda, endangering their own and other lives, as well as the recovery of their countries, they weaken considerably the argument that CARICOM governments have been advancing in the international community that we need access to more vaccines. Ten wealthy countries have secured 75 per cent of the 1.36 billion doses already administered to vaccinate 8.6 per cent of the world’s population. Other countries are struggling. There is a strong moral argument for equitable distribution.
But, if Caribbean countries have vaccines that are not being taken-up and which must be discarded because they have expired, the argument about being deprived of vaccines by rich countries will quickly be discounted.
A few politicians in some countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, while publicly supporting vaccines, have joined the anti-vaccination propaganda behind the scenes with what appears to be an intent to promote circumstances to blame the governments for a lack of progress. In Antigua and Barbuda, for instance, political focus has been placed on its Prime Minister Gaston Browne who was gifted with the Moderna vaccine which he took to try to allay fears. Now, even with other safe and reliable vaccines available, some politicians are putting politics ahead of patriotism by promoting the idea that the only acceptable vaccine is Moderna. From my own discussions with Moderna and Pfizer, I know that no new supplies will be available until January 2022 at the earliest.
None of this anti-vaccination propaganda is helping the Caribbean. The region needs to reach herd immunity soon if economies are not to decline and wither, affecting everyone.
The fate or the future of the region is now in the hands of the region’s people themselves – rejecting vaccinations is a sure way of widening the path to misfortune. The words of Dr Carissa Etienne, the Director of PAHO, should be the clarion call – “The best vaccine is the vaccine that is available”.
The alternative is a prolonged period of misery, including an increase in infections and deaths. None of this is exaggerated.
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(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)