Editorial | Robust enforcement until full vaccination
It is good news that Jamaica will begin to receive shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 this month, earlier than the original timetable. But this announcement by the health minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, does not mean that Jamaicans can afford to become relaxed about the coronavirus.
Indeed, the current situation demands vigilance – a doubling down, even – on what for the majority of us will remain, for some time yet, the efficacious protection against the virus: wearing masks, physical distancing, and maintaining good hygiene such as the frequent washing of hands. The circumstances demand a redoubling by the Government of its enforcement of the protocols. This is more important than community lockdowns and quarantines. From an economic standpoint, it is also more sensible.
Jamaica was initially slated to receive its first shipments of vaccines in April – 292,399 doses, under the World Health Organization’s (WHO-coordinated COVAX scheme. Based on the requirement of two jabs over a fortnight for the drug to be most effective, that would mean that five per cent of the population would be vaccinated from this initial tranche of vaccine. First responders, such as healthcare workers and police personnel, as well as older people, who are at greater risk from the virus, are supposed to be at the head of the queue.
Last week, however, Minister Tufton announced a shortened timetable for a first delivery of vaccines and reiterated the projection that 450,000 people, which is nearly 17 per cent of the population, will be vaccinated by the end of 2021. This is a positive development. For as the minister noted in an op-ed article in this newspaper on Sunday, vaccination is the surest way to return the island’s economy to a semblance of normality. Indeed, it is the people with the least insulation who have been hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. “Vaccines are critical and will put the Government and all Jamaicans in a much better position to balance lives and livelihoods,” the minister wrote.
NOTE OF CAUTION
We, however, wish to inject a note of caution, not about the efficacy of the vaccines so far approved for use or the tweaks being done to some to better fight the mutant strains of the coronavirus, but about the matter of the delivery timetable for the drugs.
Minister Tufton’s expectations rest largely on what has been promised by the WHO via the COVAX facility. But he is also looking at possible bilateral deals with the developing country vaccine producers, like India and Cuba, to supplement deliveries. Yet, as he warned in a parliamentary intervention last week, “the (COVAX) allocation could be adjusted upwards or downwards, depending on the present global circumstances and any anticipated challenges that the facility may encounter”.
The point is that developed countries that financed the work of some of the vaccines and paid in advance for the products essentially cornered the market for much of the early production, leaving developing countries to scramble for supplies. There are questions also of whether production facilities in emerging countries that have developed their own vaccines, or are producing the Western ones under licences, will be able to keep up with global demand.
Even if Jamaica’s best expectations are met, and 17 per cent of the population is vaccinated by year end, that, while an important start, would not be near the level of inoculation required to deliver the at least 70 per cent immunity necessary to end the contagion. At the same time, while Jamaica has fewer than 18,000 recorded cases and under 400 deaths from the virus, there has been a sharp and worrying uptick of cases in recent weeks. For example, the 1,452 new cases of COVID-19 recorded in Jamaica for the seven days up to February 6 represented an increase of 126 per cent, compared to the previous week.
Many Jamaicans have had a relatively relaxed attitude to the COVID-19 protocols, especially in relation to mingling crowds and keeping a safe distance from each other. This complacency has worsened, compounded, we believe, by less robust enforcement and insufficient mobilisation of people around the issue. While businesses, to a significant degree, have been good at enforcing the wearing of masks by their customers and clients, this is patchy in many public spaces and in buses and taxis, in public markets, and at places where people gather for public transportation. Few buses and taxis are checked and their operators and passengers called to account for flouting the regulations. People tend to respond when something is at stake – whether it’s an asset or time that might be lost.
It is not enough for Minister Tufton to “implore every Jamaican to continue to take the necessary precautions to safeguard themselves from catching and spreading COVID-19”. They have to be fully, and consistently, energetically engaged from the very top, followed closely by the law.