Vaccine mandate: It's comingSunday, September 12, 2021
I don't think it is a matter of if, it is one of when Jamaica will have to walk a similar road as Caribbean Community (Caricom) member Guyana, an oil-producing country situated on South America's North Atlantic coast.
Guyanese nationals wishing to enter any public buildings, including banks, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, etc, are required to show proof they have been vaccinated. This became effective Saturday, September 4, 2021. Those who refuse to be vaccinated are required to have a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test done every week. Nationals who exercise the option not to be vaccinated will have to spend up to US$40 for a PCR test every week. They will have to keep on their person a negative result in order to enter establishments.
Straight away I can hear many of our citizens saying, “This cannot happen in Jamaica.” I think they are wrong.
Jamaica is not a hermit State. We live in an interdependent global environment. Let us not fool ourselves for a millisecond. Jamaica will have to straighten up and fly right as regard the issue of a vaccine requirement for her citizens.
The Guyanese Government has become the first in Caricom to issue a vaccine requirement for her citizens. I believe it has made a very brave and wise move. It has effectively stolen a march on the rest of the Caribbean as our region is being pulverised by what virologists describe as the worst pandemic in the last 100 years.
Consider this! A June 14, 2021 publication by the Urban Health Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is convened and coordinated by the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative, noted among other things: “While international news media have focused their attention on tragically high numbers of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States, Canada, Europe, and specific countries such as India, the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region is among the hardest hit by the [novel coronavirus] pandemic.”
The horrendous consequences are all around us. Thousands have been uprooted economically. Many thousands more are facing social displacement and unprecedented emotional trauma. The few who live in an economic and social bubble had better wake up and smell the coffee.
I think if the majority of the region's people are forced to the wall it will be a short while, a very short while, before there is a storming of the Bastille. Folks are not going to swallow their spit, or eat air pie for an inordinate amount of time. The region's economies have to get back to pre-COVID-19 normal soon, if we are to dodge the effects of a great pall gathering on the horizon.
Georgetown has spotted the dense, dark, and dangerous clouds that are gathering and has decided to act decisively. The relatively new Administration, led by Mohamed Irfaan Ali, has recognised that the aggregate public good of his country is dangling from a precipice, albeit that just over 62 per cent of the adult population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 36 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Guyana has a population of just under 787,000 (United Nations, 2020).
Here at home, just about six per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Three weeks ago, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said that his Administration would not implement a vaccine requirement for the Jamaican population. Statements by Holness last week suggest a shift in that position. I think Holness will have to do a total reconsideration, soon and very soon.
Consider this headline: 'US CDC urges Americans to avoid travel to Jamaica'. The news item said, among other things: “The United States Centres from Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday raised Jamaica to 'Level 4' on its travel advisory, warning Americans to 'avoid travel' to the island due to rising cases of COVID-19 locally.
“ 'If you must travel to Jamaica, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel,” CDC said in an advisory on its website.
It added: “Because of the current situation in Jamaica, even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.” ( Jamaica Observer, September 7, 2021)
Well-thinking Jamaicans know that this is not good news. In fact, it is extremely terrible news. Figures that I have seen attest that some 170,000 people are employed directly in the tourism industry. The mentioned pronouncement from the CDC is a tremendous body blow to our economy. It could not have come at a worst time.
Schools reopened last week. Thousands of Jamaicans depend on earnings from tourism to finance their children's education. Massive hopes have been dampened, if not dented and/or quite likely destroyed.
Recall that at the start of June this year Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett told the country that more than 80 per cent of the island's tourism workers who had been laid off as a result of the pandemic had returned to work. Just around the time when thousands were, doubtless, calculating how they were going to make the “likkle money stretch”, as we say in local parlance, a crucial rug has shifted from under them.
Some among us might not know that one in four Jamaicans work in tourism. The sector accounts for about 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019 our tourism industry was on a solid growth trajectory. Jamaica welcomed just over four million visitors, resulting in earning of some US$3.3 billion. Then on March 10, 2020 COVID-19 landed on our shores. The damage to Jamaica's economy is evident all around.
The 64,000-dollar question now is: Where do we go from here?
To me, the answer is straightforward. Jamaicans who have not done so as yet need to get up, get out, and get vaccinated if they want to save this country from economic ruin. One does not need a degree in economics to realise that if our chief foreign exchange earner is upended there will be weeping, moaning, and gnashing of teeth in thousands of homes throughout this country.
Some may think they are immune from the socially and economically catastrophic impact that might likely follow. They are living in la-la land.
In more concrete terms, the types of wage and fringe benefit increases that are being demanded by the public sector, for example, will not be even remotely possible if we do not tame the COVID-19 monster.
Three weeks ago Prime Minister Andrew Holness revealed that an assessment of communities following the passage of Tropical Storm Grace indicated damage totalling $172 million. A tourism sector on life support will likely mean that repairs — which are in some instances quite urgent — will have to be tossed on the heap of tomorrow, next year, or some time in the near future. And headlines like this: 'Pay delay angers education inspectors' ( The Gleaner, September 7, 2021, might become familiar, if the tourism sector, is plunged into a comatose state.
I could adumbrate several other real scenarios of how our collective lives and livelihoods will be severely impacted, if we do not access the most sensible escape route from this deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
The Nationwide News Network, Bluedot poll, revealed last week that 34 per cent of Jamaicans had decided that they were not going to take the COVID-19 vaccine, come hell or high water. Ironically, they are among the citizens who are making the greatest demands on the services of the State.
The choices here, to me, are very simple: If you have your cake you can always eat it, but if you eat your cake you no longer have it. This 34 per cent, by their indicated decision, threaten to turn around and eat our cake. They do not seem to realise that we will all succeed together or we will all fail together.
Decisive leadership is needed by the Holness Administration to bring us back near to a state of pre-COVID-19 equilibrium, and fast. For those who love to invent straw men, I am not here saying that the prime minister should wake up tomorrow morning and shout: “Hear ye, hear ye, from henceforth a vaccine mandate shall commence with immediate effect. Small or great, will be required to present themselves for the jab. No one will be exempt! On pain of death, I, the prime minister, has spoken!”
I have said several times in this space that we are not subjects. We are citizens. The Government is hired by us and, as we say in local parlance, they “muss an' bound, an' compound” to consult us, since they govern with our imprimatur.
So, I agree with Prime Minister Holness's decision to take to the highways and byways — as long as he focuses like a laser beam on public education measures and related ways to help stymie the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.
I agree wholeheartedly, too, with president of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) Senator Kavan Gayle's recent call for “increased consultations between employers' and workers' organisations as the country prepares to return to normality post the [novel coronavirus] pandemic”. Gayle's recommendation is that consultations “should involve representatives of the trade unions and the employers' organisations, including the Jamaica Employers Federation (JEF), chaired by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, to represent the interests of all stakeholders” ( Jamaica Observer, May 23, 2021). This makes eminent sense. But, like everything else in this mortal life, consultations are time-bound. And especially in our situation of a national public health emergency, time is of the essence. We cannot have meetings which the only outcome is the date for several other meetings.
We have a meeting culture is this country that is helping to impoverish us. We spend too much money on catering, far too much time on what I have termed bouquet-swapping (people slapping each other's back, just for show) and credentialism preening at meetings. The quicker we pull out of these snares the better for us. But I digress.
In my The Agenda piece last Sunday I said, among other things: “The world will not wait for us to make up our minds. Guyana has made up her mind. I think other countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean will soon have to do likewise.
Those who preach that Jamaica — a small, dependent economy — can skip, sidestep, and navigate around vaccination need to ease up the sugar in their coffee or tea or, better yet, they need to reduce their diet of cartoons, particularly the binge watching of Elmer Fudd.
Here is a bit of objective reality: The US's Level 4 travel advisory on Jamaica that was issued last week is but a taste of what lies in wait if we continue to cut our own throats.
A reader sent me this interesting question: “Who in the Jamaica Labour Party is best suited to succeed Andrew Holness when he retires?”
I suspect my reader envisages that the replacement would also be suitable prime ministerial material. In that case, I see two primary prospects: Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith and the Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke. I believe there is also a dark horse, but I won't give a name at this time.
Johnson Smith is highly respected on the international scene. I think she has brought back respectability to the portfolio responsibility of foreign affairs and foreign trade. She thinks on her feet and is comfortable addressing numerous matters of national importance. She is well-liked, nationally and I gather is also admired for her mental acuity and respectful approach to matters within the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). It has been a long time since I have heard legitimate claims of Jamaicans being mistreated abroad.
I understand perfectly well that the blanket of collective responsibility covers the performance, or lack thereof, of an Administration, but, even so, I think Johnson Smith deserves special commendation. She has done a fantastic job by helping to source thousands of doses of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine — 50,000 from India; 75,000 from South Africa; 65,000 from Mexico; and could go on.
Dr Clarke has quieted the raging sea that was the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service. I have not heard legitimate calls for the resignation of the finance minister as was common in the past, in recent years. He has been a very good steward of the national purse and he highly regarded internationally. I am told he enjoys wide respect in the JLP. He has a sharp mind and has quickly developed as an able speaker.
Johnson Smith and Clarke are, at present, political rising stars. I hope they don't become shooting stars.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.