Letters & Opinion

Science vs Stupidity — Part 2

Wanted: An Urgent Saint Lucia COVID Vaccine Diplomacy Mission

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

WEDNESDAY evening’s national COVID address by Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre offered crystal-clear indications of where and how the incoming administration will pursue the ongoing battle against the pandemic, to protect the nation against the unavoidable and inescapable arrival of the deadly and dreaded Delta Variant already on our doorstep — if not already here undetected.

Upside-down…
COVID-19 has virally turned the world upside-down – and lest we forget, Saint Lucia has all-along in the past year been leading the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS) in both positive cases and deaths.

Globally yesterday (August 12), 206.2 million cases and 4.3 million deaths were registered, Latin America and the Caribbean together registering 41.9 million cases and 1.4 million deaths.

The top eight worst-case countries are (in that order): USA, India, Brazil, Russia, France, U.K, Turkey and Argentina.

But the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), while not in the top ten at the very bottom of the global list, isn’t faring as well as wished.

Saint Lucia’s numbers continue to grow at rates signaling a very possible 4th COVID wave, registered cases (on August 12) at 6,112 with related-deaths at 95.

As of August 11, only 33,256 individuals had received the first jab and 26,063 have got both – but even at 59,319 the number of vaccinated is less than half the 126,000 double-vaccination doses needed to qualify for Herd Immunity.

The new three-week drive (August 13 to 31) will feature: an earlier curfew time (from 9p.m.), no permission for ‘special events’ with loud music or boat rides and no locals at establishments housing unvaccinated visitors; avoiding overloading the health system, more attention for isolated victims/patients, equity in application of protocols enforcement, decriminalization of protocols violations (including erasing criminal records of persons already prosecuted); a national testing drive, an education drive to battle conspiracy theories — and the COVID National Command Center to be led by a health expert, instead of a politician (as required by the COVID Emergency law).

Small Price
PM Pierre reiterated on Wednesday night that his government will continue to ‘follow the science and the numbers’ in the fightback against COVID and ‘will not’ leave or abandon the battlefield to ‘uninformed opinions’.

Noting that ‘Discomfort is a small price to pay’ for one’s health, the PM also assured that while strongly promoting vaccination, his government’s efforts will be more persuasive than mandatory.

PM Pierre disclosed that 52,600 doses of the Pfizer vaccine — donated by the Biden administration — will arrive here on August 17; and urged unvaccinated persons to reconsider, seek medical advice and take the jab.

He’d just attended his first meeting of the OECS Authority as Saint Lucia’s new leader, where they heard from lawyers and doctors on the pros and cons of mandatory vaccination and together explored avenues for joint searches for common solutions for similar challenges.

The PM’s address followed a full COVID national update by Chief Medical Officer (CEO) Dr Sharon Belmar George and was welcomed by Dr Merle Clarke, President of Saint Lucia Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) and stakeholders in the private and public sectors.

But with the public pulse strongly supporting his new prescriptions, the Prime Minister’s address also opened the way for more positive expectations from a usually impatient public that’s ready to ‘Give the new government a chance…’

Choices
Nothing was said directly about widening vaccine choices, but it’s another unavoidable issue the government will eventually have to face.

Only the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been in use here and there’s already a high level of Vaccine Hesitance, Refusal and Mistrust, fueled both by conspiracy theories and natural concerns from confusion generated mixed messaging about efficacy of the most popular and widely-marketed vaccines.

Adding Pfizer as a second vaccine opens-up the question of further widening the choices, especially as many among the unvaccinated say they’re ‘waiting for the Cuban vaccine…’

Dr Alphonsus ‘Ray’ St Rose earlier this week noted that ‘People were not prepared’ for what’s happening now and that many still remain unaware of the actual dangers and challenges they (and the nation) face.

Doctors are getting desperate and continue to painfully join the CMO and SLMDA President to urge skeptical or hard-headed individuals to understand their hesitance is tiring and endangering the health of the nation’s health workers.

The doctors are also heavily pressing citizens to take more personal responsibility for their health — and to protect friends and family.

But the doctors are also very-much-aware that the problem today is not as much availability of vaccines as the low vaccination rates — such that expired stocks of AstraZeneca vaccines have had to be dumped lately.

The Biden administration’s coming donation will be from its huge over-supply of extra vaccines and expiry dates will also matter sooner if as many Saint Lucians continue to mistrust vaccines or refuse to take the prick — for whatever reasons.

Vaccine Diplomacy
With vaccination rates almost at a standstill while positivity rates rise, it will require the government to embark on an urgent Vaccine Diplomacy mission to secure Saint Lucia’s place in the ongoing arms race for global shoulders.

Global vaccine diplomacy is very much alive and has seen interesting developments in the past year-and-a-half, including India flying donations of small amounts of AstraZeneca worldwide to promote its Serum Institute of India (SII) being the world’s largest producer of vaccines; and the US sending-back (by way of an emergency gift) 60 million doses it had originally purchased from Delhi, after the Delta variant took devastating hold there.

The US’ own vaccine diplomacy variant will unravel here with the arrival of the donated Pfizer stocks on the same day the new parliament meets for its first Session since the July 26 elections.

Earlier this year, then CARICOM Chairman Trinidad & Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley diplomatically appealed to the US for vaccine support for the member-states and Vice President Kamala Harris responded that Washington would help.

The US Navy’s Southern Command soon thereafter landed-in and constructed a small field hospital for Trinidad & Tobago — and now Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia will benefit from the Biden administration’s vaccine charm outreach.

China, now the biggest contributor to the World Health Organization’s COVAX distribution mechanism, has indicated its intention to donate, provide and distribute two billion doses of vaccines, mainly to developing countries, by the end of 2021.

Chinese and Russian vaccines are already available or registered in a few individual CARICOM member-states, but none as much as AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

Other Considerations
But expanding vaccine choices will have to be accompanied by intensification of measures to beat-back the negative propaganda of the Doubting Thomases and Doomsday Preachers that result not only in more confusion, but is also assuming political and violent proportions.

Serious steps will have to be taken too to combat the effects of the mixed messaging from news reports on how the USA and European governments and health officials are advising wearing masks.

There are also new concerns about government’s examination of offering ‘incentives to vaccinate’, many hoping the State won’t be ‘offering money’ or ‘paying people to care for their health…’

There’s also the real issue of vaccination of young persons and children between 12 and 18, as numbers of infections in that unvaccinated age group continue to rise in the USA and Europe.

Main Tasks
But, as ever, the main task facing government and health officials, Civil Society and national stakeholders today remains combating the negative propaganda that has taken root to such grave extents – and preparing for the coming negative backlashes from increasing politicization of the issue by weak opposition parties and trade unions, as already seen in Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados and St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

Saint Vincent & the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves was stoned into paying in blood for the region to see the price leaders can pay and the cost of the violence that can result when people are misled into believing their individual rights and choices override the wider national good — and they have a right to not only endanger their lives, but also others (including friends and family).

Saint Lucia cannot but learn from the costly yet free lessons from everywhere on the dynamics of fighting the invisible virus on an increasingly uneven battlefield, where the few have a stranglehold on the most effective weapons (vaccines) and remain unwilling to share, while the majority cannot even join the fight, left to witness and wait — giving truth, yet again, to the wise African saying that ‘When elephants fight, the grass suffers.’

How the new Saint Lucia government approaches the need for an urgent vaccine diplomacy mission today will determine whether, after the global arms race is over in a distant tomorrow, Saint Lucia’s grass will be green — or gone.

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