The New Today

Commentary

Of vaccine hesitancy and other things

The government has taken the wrong approach in dealing with the problem of vaccine hesitancy on the island. Arrogant, coercive messaging by high government officials and heavy handed actions by some employers would not cause persons, who are hesitant to take vaccine, change their minds.

Ever since development of the first vaccine, human beings have harboured apprehension to getting vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy is a complex phenomenon that requires understanding and a varied response when dealing with it.

There are many reasons why persons are hesitant to get vaccinated. Some are anti-vaxxers staunchly against taking vaccines in general. Others are against doing so for religious reasons.

However, the problem of hesitancy is more diverse than that, one group of persons are hesitant to take the vaccine out of fear and safety concerns, a second group are on the fence holding out but could be persuaded when given the right information, another group of persons reject one vaccine but is willing to take a different one while some persons though hesitant will eventually take the vaccine.

Apart from fear, religious reasons and misinformation, people tend to become hesitant based on their own experiences, relationships and trust in government and institutions, in particular public health agencies. Understanding the full landscape of vaccine hesitancy is critical to formulating an effective response.

However, government must first recognise and acknowledge its lead agency, Ministry of Health dropped the ball with the vaccine roll out. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO), and his team assumed the infrastructure that existed for childhood vaccinations and the success of such campaigns could have been easily replicated for the Covid-19 vaccine roll out.

They failed to recognise that an adult vaccination campaign for a novel virus is a much more complex undertaking than a childhood vaccination drive. In so doing he and his team did not give serious consideration to hesitancy and a comprehensive public education initiative with effective messaging was not developed.

This allowed misinformation on the internet by anti-vaxxers a free reign and handicapped the response to health concerns regarding the vaccine such as blood clots.

Government must also recognise the institutional arrangement for managing the vaccine roll out is weak and lacks accountability. No one was appointed to lead the vaccine effort and as such could ultimately be held responsible for its failure or success. This is unlike other islands including Barbados that went ahead and appointed a retired senior health official to spearhead the vaccination drive.

Having now concluded the number of persons willing to take the vaccine has plateaued to just over eleven thousand persons and the campaign itself appears to be stalled, government is unable to mount a serious effort to turn the situation around. Instead, senior officials in frustration have resorted to using coercive language and promoting heavy handed tactics by employers to get persons to take the vaccine. This would not work, instead it is hardening the resolve of those who are hesitant to take the vaccine.

Rather than being arrogant and using language tantamount to threats these senior officials should pause and take stock of the situation. The Ministry of Health and Covid Response Committee should seek assistance in developing a comprehensive public education plan with effective messaging variously targeted at sub groups among those that are hesitant to take the vaccine using different mediums.

The committee should be prepared to work closely with a wide cross section of stakeholders including religious leaders, community activists, and community agents such as barbers, salon operators, community health nurses, social workers, entertainers and cultural ambassadors to get messaging across to those who are hesitant.

The Prime Minister must play his part as well by ‘leveling with the people’ letting them know that in spite of the island’s current low Covid-19 risk, the situation can change for the worst overnight since the pandemic is raging around us and more dangerous variants are being identified.

The Prime Minister should refer to the situation in Trinidad and Brazil where the dreaded Brazilian variant P1 are spreading, and in India on the verge of total collapse of the health sector because of a new deadly variant, the Indian strain.

The Prime Minister in his messaging to the public must inform citizens that because of our heavy dependency on tourism and international trade the island is at constant risk for importation of the virus. He must remind them of the potential serious social and economic consequences of community spread of any of the new variants on the island.

The leader must make the population understand that because of the increasing dominance of the new deadly strains in countries that the island depend on for tourism, any outbreak would be deadly and place the health sector under tremendous strain as currently occurring in Brazil and India.

The Prime Minister needs to take a page from President Joe Biden’s playbook on dealing with vaccine hesitancy.

That being said, apart from messaging that explains the science and safety of vaccines, addresses the fears of persons that are hesitant, and assure others that are reluctant they should take the vaccine, there ought to be informed, as well, of the benefits of being vaccinated.

Those who are hesitant to take the vaccine should be made aware of the benefits of vaccination. If they take the vaccine and sixty percent of the population are vaccinated then children would not have to risks going back to online learning.

A recent study by Caribbean Policy Research Institute, Insult to Injury- the impact of Covid-19 on Vulnerable Communities in the Caribbean suggests a significant percentage of children in the region are having difficulties learning at home, and have no access to the internet.

The situation is amplified in poor low income communities. Citizens who are fully vaccinated will be able to travel abroad and move freely particularly in outdoor settings.

The risk of sickness, hospitalisation and death due to Covid-19 infection is extremely low when vaccinated, so when the inevitable next outbreak happens on the island those who have not taken the vaccine will be at greater risk for infection, hospitalisation and death.

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Persons should be made to understand that as more people travel to the island during the upcoming summer and winter months the chances of a virus outbreak increases significantly and it could be one of the dreaded variants, UK, Brazilian, South African and the Indian one that is devastating that country.

Our health system can’t withstand a spike spread much less an outbreak or community spread by any of these variants. Vaccine skeptics must be told that they are playing ‘Russian roulette’ with their lives and that of relatives and friends.

It was only a month ago that World Health Organisation (WHO) commended Trinidad and Tobago for its efforts at keeping Covid-19 infections low and India announced it was nearing the end game in the fight against the virus, yet today, both countries are experiencing intense community spread in the case of the former and cataclysmic infection rates in the latter.

Grenadians must be made to understand that the situation in a pandemic can change in the twinkle of an eye. The majority of the population can’t afford to sit on their laurels saying ‘we don’t have Covid on the island’ and ‘it’s a hoax’ because, presently, the infection rate is very low, the situation can change suddenly.

All it takes is for one infected visitor to the island to breach entry protocols at the air or sea port, a false negative PCR result, an infected Venezuelan or Vincentian who enter the country’s borders illegally to engage in illegal drugs or a yachtie trying to avoid quarantine to interact with locals on the island and spread the virus.

The Prime Minister and the Covid-19 team must recognise that information that can be used to prepare effective messaging is available, however persons now tasked with doing so are unable and capacity should immediately be identified to correct the situation.

Coercive and arrogant utterances by high officials would not help, rather it will worsen the situation, placing the island at serious risk for a virus outbreak, the longer it takes for herd immunity to be reached. The much expected economic recovery will be placed in jeopardy as well.

The Prime Minister and his team must understand the island is at a crossroad and the path chosen would determine whether there is a Covid-19 outbreak or not. If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet choose the path of tightening up on enforcement of current protocols, facilitate development of effective massaging to combat vaccine hesitancy, acquire more vaccines and ramp up public education campaign the island could fend off an attack by the Covid-19 virus.

According to US president Joe Biden, “The bottom line is clear, if you’re vaccinated you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors, so for those who haven’t gotten their vaccinations yet, especially if you’re younger or thinking you don’t need it, this is another reason to go get vaccinated now.”

President Biden’s message can resonate here in Grenada and this is the kind of messaging the Prime Minister should be giving rather than make comments that can intimidate persons into taking the vaccine.

On the other hand, how come this Middle Eastern man could be allowed to make the Prime Minister look as a ‘house slave’ with his racially loaded utterances. This ‘harf’ known for having temper tantrums when things don’t go his way, is out of place, he thinks Grenadians are all butlers and servants who could only smile for tourists.

The Middle Eastern man believes we are in the movie, ‘Gone with the Wind’. His friend must tell him that Grenadians are a proud people who excelled at the highest levels on the world stage in law, politics, academics, arts and sports.

He must be told of Justice Julius Isaac, the first black Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Canada, Justice Romain Pitt, the first black lawyer from a private practice to be a Superior Court Judge in Canada, Jean Augustine, the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons in Canada, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, one of the first persons of African descent to be in the House of Lords and the longest serving black Parliamentarian in the United Kingdom.

He must be told of Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, one of the biggest cabaret stars in the world during the nineteen twenties and thirties, Kirani James, Olympic gold medalist and Lewis Hamilton, World F1 racing champion.

We are certainly not an island of butlers and servants, we are a defiant people who had the first and only revolution in the English-speaking Caribbean. The pride and joy of the revolution is the Maurice Bishop International Airport. There are no Muslim Brotherhood in Grenada, however there are still sufficient conscientious citizens on the island who are willing to draw a red line in the sand on the Maurice Bishop International Airport – that must not be crossed.

Not a blade of grass on that airport will be sold for there will be hell to pay: the ‘harf’ must wheel and come again.

It is also observed that the artist rendition of cottages on the hill next to Portici beach appear to block the dirt track or footpath used by Grenadians for ‘donkey years’ to access that beach.

I hope the civil servants whom the ‘harf’ like to bash would enforce the regulations on footpaths and ‘right of ways’ to allow Grenadians to continue accessing the beach. All citizens must stay focus on Portici beach and spot the light on the Physical Planning Unit as the project comes on stream.

Footpaths, right of ways and access to public beaches are codified, the ‘harf’ must not be allowed to repeat what was done on Grand Anse beach.

Special Correspondent