Thu | Jul 29, 2021

Peter Espeut | Why is Jamaica last in line in vaccine diplomacy?

Published:Friday | March 12, 2021 | 12:08 AM
A staffer removes the five boxes of AstraZeneca vaccines, gifted to Jamaica by Government of India, at the National Health Fund’s warehouse on Marcus Garvey Drive, Kingston, on Monday.
A staffer removes the five boxes of AstraZeneca vaccines, gifted to Jamaica by Government of India, at the National Health Fund’s warehouse on Marcus Garvey Drive, Kingston, on Monday.

I was born just before the serious polio epidemic of 1954; my mother, who was a nurse, made sure we all were vaccinated, and all her children survived that scare unscathed. Poliomyelitis, caused by the poliovirus, was not eliminated by the national vaccination campaigns, but the incidence was much reduced. There is hope that an effective vaccine against the coronavirus will eliminate the pandemic, and reduce COVID-19 cases to below crisis levels.

The Government of Jamaica has failed to implement strategies to control the spread of COVID-19 infections among a population undisciplined from top to bottom; last month (February) we broke the record for detected daily infections three times; the first week of this month saw three new records set on three consecutive days: 527, 723, and 878 new infections detected on March 5, 6, and 7, for a total of 2,128 new detected infections in 72 hours.

On December 2, 2020, the United Kingdom approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, becoming the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine that had been tested in a large clinical trial. The first vials of anti-COVID-19 vaccines (9,750 doses) arrived in the Caribbean on January 5 this year, bound for the British colony of Cayman Islands (population 65,000). The Turks & Caicos Islands (population 38,000) – another British colony – got theirs on January 11, enough to vaccinate 5,000 persons.

FIRST VACCINES ARRIVED IN FEBRUARY

British health authorities approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on December 30, 2020, and they licensed the Serum Institute of India to manufacture it. On February 9, 2021, Barbados and Dominica received gifts of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from the government and people of India; Barbados (population 287,000) received 100,000 doses and Dominica (population 74,000) received 70,000 doses.

The following day (February 10), Barbados donated 3,000 doses to Guyana (population 786,000), of which the CARICOM Secretariat received 100 doses; on the same day they also gave gifts of 2,000 doses to Trinidad & Tobago (population 1.3 million), 1,000 doses to Grenada (population 109,000), and 1,000 doses to St Lucia (population 180,000).

On February 11, Dominica gave gifts of 5,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to St Vincent & the Grenadines (population 109,000), 5,000 doses to Antigua & Barbuda (population 104,000), 2,000 doses to St Lucia (population 180,000), and 2,000 doses to St. Kitts & Nevis (population 56,000).

All these CARICOM countries received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine almost a full month before Jamaica. Is it that Jamaica has fallen so low on the totem pole of vaccine diplomacy that we are at the back of the line?

Further, on March 1, 2021, Antigua & Barbuda (population 104,000) received an additional gift of 40,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the Government of India; on the same day, St Kitts & Nevis (population 56,000) received a gift of 20,000 doses, and St Vincent & the Grenadines (population 109,000) received a gift of 40,000 doses from the same source.

On March 7, 2021, Guyana (population 786,000) received a gift from the Government of India of 80,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

On the following day (March 8), Jamaica (population 2.8 million) received a gift of 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine donated by the Government of India.

FALLEN LOW DIPLOMATICALLY

Not only are we at the back of the line, but we have received less doses as a proportion of our total population. This is not a criticism of the generosity of the Government of India, but a comment on how low Jamaica has fallen in diplomatic terms.

At the same time, on February 24, 2021, the Dominican Republic (population 10 million) received their first batch of 768,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac, and on March 2, Guyana (population 786,000) received a gift of 20,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the same source.

And some months ago, the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines approved the use of the Russian anti-COVID-19 vaccine (Sputnik V) for use in their small islands.

In the absence of transparency in these matters, I would like to know whether or not Jamaica declined earlier gifts of COVID-19 vaccines from India, Russia and China, and if so, why. There could be very good reasons, but we Jamaicans have a right to know.

Sadly, there is no vaccine against crime and murder, or against environmental destruction. To remedy these social diseases, we will just have to look to effective behaviour-change strategies among our politicians and the wider public.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com