IT is clear that the vast number of Jamaicans who refuse to be vaccinated do not appreciate the existential danger in which the country has found itself. The misinformation and downright lies that are being told by those who oppose vaccines are not only disconcerting and despicable, but clearly injurious to the public good. It is so considering that, at the time of writing, only about 10 per cent of the population — about 280,000 people — have been vaccinated and over 600,000 have received their first dose.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness is hoping that, by the end of November, one million people would have been vaccinated. It is good to have hope, but he will need more than that if his expectation is to become reality.
The truth is, given the level of our vaccination programme at the moment, Jamaica is among those countries on the lowest rung. This is pathetic, to say the least. At a 10 per cent vaccination rate we are not far off from where we were when the novel coronavirus hit the country in March 2020. As such, hand sanitising, physical distancing and yes, mask-wearing will have to be continued into the distant future, at least well into 2022.
These are not comforting words to the population of a country that has grown weary of dealing with the virus, especially those who are eager for the economy to be fully reopened. But the reality continues to be what it is.
Since last year I have been writing that there can be no robust reopening of the economy until we have brought the spread of novel coronavirus under control which, in my estimation, means that over 75 per cent of the population will have to be fully vaccinated. I believe this still stands true today.
This is a hard and difficult fact to assimilate for far too many people who seem to believe that the virus will be defeated by wishful thinking. They also fail to accept the reality that the low vaccination rate puts the economy in serious peril. We have seen time and again that whenever the Government tries to lift imposed restrictions, as it did in July, there is a surge in the intensity of the spread. It gives me no comfort to say this, but it seems to me that we will be wearing masks for a long time, not because the Government says so, but because the nature and modus operandi of the virus dictate such.
What will change if by the end of October, or even December, the Government decides to lift the present restrictions in an effort to give some boost to the economy? What if Government should cave in to the demands of those who recklessly believe that it is time to reopen entertainment venues and allow people more latitude than they are presently experiencing? Not only would the Government be irresponsible, but with only 10 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and many needing booster shots in the near future, you can rest assured that we would be risking another surge in infections.
Even if the prime minister's target of one million by November is achieved, there would be close to over two million who would not have received their first, or even second, shot of the vaccine. Such relaxation of the measures would be ill-advised as it could worsen the already-creaking health-care system, further debilitate our already-burdened and burnt-out health professionals, and further suspend any robust economic activity.
If the present status quo, whereby the majority of Jamicans remain unvaccinated, is maintained, the Government may very well find that it will have to implement more stringent and resolute measures to get people to comply.
There is the strong suggestion, coming from influential sectors of the society, that the time has come to make vaccination mandatory. I concur. This can be done in a number of ways, but the Government must first get its house in order in terms of the deployment of the vaccines and making sure that people do not have to endure unnecessary burdens to be vaccinated.
This is a time for tough decisions, not dithering on the part of our elected officials.
I get the distinct impression that the Government talks a good talk about the threat of the virus and what is being done to get people vaccinated, but they are coming up very short on the ground in getting the needles in people's arms. It makes no sense mandating vaccines if the logistics are not in place to ensure that people get the jab at minimum inconvenience to themselves. I believe that more people would take the vaccines if they did not have to put up with the bungling and hardships they have to endure at the vaccination sites.
This is the time for a national mobilisation effort to be launched to get people vaccinated; however, I do not sense the kind of urgency from our elected authorities which a crisis of this magnitude demands. There was even talk of some Cabinet-level division on the mandating of vaccines. I do not think that there is any rift in the Government as others have suggested. Very strong disagreements among Cabinet colleagues are normative. A rift suggests divisions where deep fissures arise which alienate people and set up combatants on either side of an issue. I do not believe this is the case now, even with representative Juliet Holness, the wife of the prime minister, questioning the ministry of health's roll-out of the Pfizer vaccine. Let us not see fires where none exist.
What has become of the National COVID-19 Vaccination Operationalisation Task Force headed by the redoubtable Gordon Shirley to address virus- and vaccine-related issues? It is well over a month since the appointment of the task force, but we have not heard from them. They seem to be more busy in the dark than they are in the light. We do not see them in the public space talking to what they are doing to educate, encourage, and mobilise the society to subdue the virus. Is this yet another task force that gives the impression that something is being done – a façade to fool the ignorant and deflect blame from where it truly belongs? We are in a war but the generals are sitting in air-conditioned offices waiting on the foot soldiers to strategise and bring the fight to the enemy. I hope to God that I am wrong on this.
How far advanced is the Ministry of Health (MOH) in its effort to get doctors in private practice engaged in the fight? My understanding is that many want to be involved but there does not seem to be a clear signal from the MOH as to the nature of their involvement.
What is the problem? Is it money or governmental inertia? We need to know because this group is essential to the fight against COVID-19. The same is true of pharmacists who have been champing at the bit to get involved in the vaccination programme. Where do they now stand in being engaged?
The time has come for greater resoluteness on the part of the Government to deal with this virus. We elect people to govern because, obviously, we all can't. We invest them with great power through a document we call a constitution so they can deploy their best talents in keeping the citizens secure and as healthy as possible. I am sure citizens acknowledge that politicians are also human and that they, too, have grown weary in the fight against the worst crisis to have hit the country in its living memory. But, we are in the middle of a full-blown crisis that is threatening our very survival and we need greater assurance that our leaders are seized of this fact.
If they lead without vacillating, more people will follow. This is not a time for dithering. It is a time for resolute and determined leadership.
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.