Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been oscillating between emotions in recent times. He has appeared sorrowful and crestfallen at the unacceptable surge in violent, murderous criminality, which has continued in its stride despite the Government's claim to be doing its best to stem this out-of-control scourge. Last Sunday he sounded very combative on where he stood on the novel coronavirus pandemic and the most recent iteration — Omicron.
When asked what were his Government's strategies to deal with the current surge, he retorted that people must get vaccinated as that is the strategy. “Argument done,” said the prime minister in a demonstration of apparent frustration at the low vaccination rate in the country.
But is the argument really done, Mr Prime Minister?
One can share his frustration with the low vaccination rate. After the slow roll-out of the programme, there is now an ample supply of vaccines in the country. We have within our grasp a scientifically tested and proven way in which we can defeat the novel coronavirus. Yet too many remain unconvinced as they continue to listen to conspiracy theories and disinformation concerning the virus.
We were aware that, with the low number of vaccinated individuals, we would be in for a raging inferno once the holidays kicked in. We are now in the vortex of that fourth wave. So any reasonable person can well understand a leader's frustration when a proven remedy is available and so many refuse to play their part in reducing the power of the virus and thus return the society to some semblance of normality.
But, whatever frustration a Government and its leader have about an existential crisis, the problem does not go away until it is wrestled to the ground.
It is not enough for the prime minister to believe that the mere presence of vaccines will end the problem. As he and his Government have discovered, the vaccines are here and yet close to 70 per cent of the people have refused to take them.
Vaccines are only useful when they get into people's arms, not when they are sitting in cold storage in a holding facility. It means that every measure must be pursued to this end.
The argument is never finished until we have sufficient people vaccinated so that we can get to the coveted herd immunity or the virus becomes so weak that it graduates to the status of the common flu, as it may very well be doing with this latest variant. Until that happens, if it does, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
It is not just that people are getting sick from the virus. They may not be dying at the level of past surges, but serious problems can arise as people get sick.
For one, hospitals can become overwhelmed as is already happening. Already all major hospitals across the country are reaching their capacity for COVID-19 patients. Other patients needing critical care will soon find it difficult to get the support they need. Meanwhile, medical staff are again at their wits end, with some of them becoming ill and having to isolate and not go to work.
As the virus surges and more people become sick, productivity at the workplace will be severely cauterised. It is not what we wish, but what will in fact happen if we do not continue to be resolute in fighting the virus. This is why any political leader must show resoluteness and insist on using all measures at his or her disposal to fight it. No leader has the luxury in a time of national crisis to indulge wishful thinking or to convey the thought that fighting a pandemic can be left to the whims and fancies of a recalcitrant population.
Strong resolve does not mean that you have to threaten people to take the vaccine. What it does mean is that you are going to make it clear to those who refuse to comply that you are not going to make those who have complied hostages to their refusal. Those who comply should not be fried in the fat of those who refuse to.
The prime minister should take the politically unpopular decision to insist that people wishing to use government services — tax offices, public transportation, and so on — must show their vaccination cards. Countries in Europe, such as France, Germany, and Switzerland, have taken steps to put the squeeze on the unvaccinated. People have been banned from going into restaurants, attending concerts, or even going to the gym.
One is not saying that we necessarily have to adopt these measures here, but patriotic and societal responsibility in the face of existential threats demand extraordinary measures to ensure the greater health of society. This is civics 101 regarding the duties and responsibility of the citizen.
Fearing civil uprisings or the loss of political capital, the prime minister might not want to indulge measures that will make people's lives more difficult. This is perhaps why he has skirted around the word mandate.
If he fears a political fallout, then he would be well advised that the politicisation of a crisis does not only have to do with making partisan statements about it. It can also be rooted in an unwillingness to make unpopular decisions which may come back to haunt you in an election.
And, if this is the calculation the prime minister is making, then he, too, wittingly or unwittingly, may well be playing politics with the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of the Jamaican people.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm and Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.