Letters & Opinion

Saint Lucia and CARICOM nations in COVID vaccination limbo: Vax or No Vax?

By Earl Bouquet

If ever we needed proof that COVID has ‘no time and place’ or ‘respect for anyone or anything’, we’ve got more proof this week.

Eleven months after the first COVID-19 case was registered here (on March 13, 2020) and on the same day we observed our 42nd Independence Anniversary Under Lockdown, the number of positive cases jumped the three-thousand mark to 3,162.

And the number of deaths in the USA passed 500,000 – highest in the world.

The new record number of cases came in the same week the first vaccines were administered here on February 17, finally starting the long arms race to jab enough citizens to slowdown and – hopefully — eventually stop the spread of the island’s third COVID wave.

The vaccine roll-out started here last week with much fanfare.

The ultimate aim is to eventually vaccinate up to 70% of the population along ‘Herd Immunity’ lines — a steep uphill task forged by high levels of national hesitance, confirmed in late 2020 by a widely-quoted poll sample revealing only 15% of Saint Lucians were willing to be vaccinated.

The high hesitance level is highly attributable to the low levels of public information about the effectiveness of the different vaccines.

People are naturally health-cautious, but the low level of direct access to online information by many of those most in need of vaccination is usually overly underestimated.

In the absence of proactive responsive messaging, the doubts planted among the silent majority by the fewer but louder conspiracy theorists grows by the day as they argue with those who believe that ‘More vaccinations are better than more deaths.’

But daily talk shows measuring public pulses reveal both a widening of the gaps and deepening of convictions for and against.

Governments, on the other hand, entrusted with responsibility for keeping nations healthy – cannot simply sit and wait for people to ‘make their minds up…’

So, vaccines are being rolled-out across the Caribbean on the basis of speed of delivery and accessibility, but with no uniformity.

Having signed-up to the COVAX mechanism and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine even before the first was rolled out by the manufacturers, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) governments face ongoing prospects of delivery delays.

AstraZeneca has been shelved in South Africa, where it was proven ineffective against the new virus strains that mutated in the UK and Brazil, USA and Latin America – and have arrived in the Caribbean.

South Africa instead embraced Novavax, the new Johnson & Johnson one-shot jab, as of February 19, just a week after millions of doses were discarded in Japan due to syringe problems.

The new strains are causing migraine headaches in the USA, where seven new variants have already been detected, medical authorities there now warning the will ‘most likely’ become the dominant ones by the end of March.

Oxford-AstraZeneca has been hastening late-deliveries to countries where delays have jeopardized healthy contractual arrangements, even while more revelations surface about its efficacy.

But the late deliveries and related problems elsewhere have raised question marks over the 35 million doses promised to the 36 countries involved in the COVAX mechanism by February 28 — and the rest of the 280 million doses to be delivered by year-end.

Many countries now — patiently and impatiently — await results of the Johnson & Johnson trials in South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphpsa took the very first jab last Friday.

With Moderna not due for approval until May, CARICOM also awaits Cuba’s Soberania, due in June.

The new vaccines are coming fast and furious – 26 already officially on the market — adding to the confusion of the uninformed majority.

Caribbean governments, therefore, need to take early steps to inform citizens of the pros and cons of each.

In light of the growing doubts, undecided people being asked to vaccinate do urgently need accurate information to help them make healthy choices — to know which vaccines the health authorities think are best and why, what the costs are, why and how they differ and which are under consideration.

Meanwhile, COVID’s human costs continue to be factored beyond tomorrow, with US health officials reporting last week that Americans’ lifespan has been decreased — by the highest-ever level — during the first half of 2020, chipping one year off the average lifespan of Whites, two years off Hispanics and three years off Blacks’.

President Joe Biden, having approved US $4 billion for the US COVID Emergency (vis-a-vis the $1.96 billion the WHO is appealing for today to help the entire world) on Friday visited the biggest AstraZeneca plant in America, seeking reassurance the manufacturers can turn-out vaccines fast enough to help slow the spread and lower the curve.

But with seven new virus variants on the loose and the different types of vaccines distributed not being administered as fast as necessary to avert possible catastrophe, the US President is now advising Americans to double-up on protection and prevention measures – and is leading by example:

During his tour of the facility, President Biden wore two masks – as, with so much up-in-the-air, Americans are now being advised by the US health authorities to ‘Double-mask’.

Double-masking is not likely to be a welcome new protocol in the Caribbean – at least in Saint Lucia, where 200 additional COVID wardens have had to be employed to help police the compulsory masking protocol.

Indeed, the very reason for wearing masks is not fully understood, many saying they will not take the vaccine ‘because I will still have to wear a mask…’

Thus, at the very start of the last week to end the year’s shortest month, as Saint Lucians virtually observed independence for the first time, Caribbean governments and citizens are still very much in limbo over not only when and if all ordered or promised vaccines will arrive; and people now more than ever, are divided on whether to vax or not to vax!

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