Editorial | Sensible to inoculate students
Now that the Government is allowing the Pfizer vaccine to anyone above the age of 12, the rational thing for parents and guardians is to have their children inoculated against COVID-19. For those adults who are resistant or hesitant to the vaccines, hopefully their children can help them to navigate their doubts, towards acceptance.
There are strong common-sense reasons why people should embrace COVID-19 vaccination. It lessens the likelihood of death or severe illness from the coronavirus. And it is an important route towards a reopening of the economy and normality in the society, including a full return to face-to-face teaching in schools, especially given the Government’s declared policy of affording classroom priority to vaccinated students when the new school year begins next month.
But as we have suggested before, the Government can contribute to achieving its policy prescription in three significant ways. First, it has to make the vaccines easily accessible, which appears to be its intention. Second, it must work harder at co-opting pro-vaccine messengers who are credible to young people. Third, that message must be simple, clear, fact-based and delivered, in addition to the traditional outlets, on platforms where young people, including students, increasingly find their information.
However, even as the Government encourages Jamaicans to take the vaccines, it has to redouble its promotion of other methods of resisting COVID-19 which are in its arsenal, but which it has deployed neither robustly nor effectively. The administration has not been aggressive in enforcing its mandates for wearing masks and physical distancing. This, admittedly, requires hard, concentrated effort and ongoing, effective communication. Instead, the Government has preferred sweeping, rather than targeted, lockdowns when COVID-19 cases spiral – as is again the situation.
The latest surge of the epidemic, Jamaica’s so-called third wave, underlines a new dimension to this disease which requires new thinking about COVID-19 and, therefore, new ways of combating the virus. The health authorities confirmed that the Delta variant, a more virulent mutation of the coronavirus, has reached Jamaica.
Its effect is evident in the data. In the first 20 days of August there were 8,045 new COVID-19 cases, an increase of 15 per cent since the end of July. That is an average of more than 400 cases a day, including a high of 794 reported on Friday. Before August, the previous daily high was 381 cases on April 10, or 48 per cent of Friday’s amount.
Further, the rate at which Jamaicans are dying from COVID-19 has accelerated rapidly. Between the start of August and last Friday, 20 days, 175 people died from COVID-19, which is a third (33.6 per cent) more than June and 51 per cent more than July. And not only are younger people contracting the disease, they are also dying from it.
For instance, of the 85 reported COVID-19 deaths in the first 11 days of August, 19 (28 per cent) were under 50, including five (six per cent) who were in their 30s. Among the 15 deaths reported on Friday, one was a 31-year-old male. Overall, in August, more than 60 per cent of the people who have died are under 70. In other words, COVID-19 is no longer a disease or killer of old people. Its mutated strains are equal-opportunity villains. The Delta variant does not discriminate by age, although younger people, whose immune systems are less compromised, have a better chance.
However, younger people who contract the virus can infect others, including their peers and older people. Vaccination is not a foolproof method against COVID-19, or, for that matter, against any other disease. But the data indicates that the available vaccines significantly reduce the likelihood of people contracting COVID-19. When vaccinated people do contract the virus (the so-called breakthrough cases), the prospect of their becoming seriously ill is greatly lessened. This is the background against which health experts, globally, say that COVID-19 is now primarily a pandemic of the unvaccinated and why it makes sense for Jamaicans to take the vaccines.
The Government’s calculation in giving priority to vaccinated children to return to the classroom is obvious. The policy is to protect students from each other and teachers from students, and vice versa. On the face of it, the 208,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines (the one recommended for children) Jamaica now has in hand is just sufficient to provide all secondary students with their first of the two jabs required for full vaccination. It expects to have more in time to administer the second dose.
We hope that this goes well. But there will be children who for various reasons, including because of the objections of their parents, will remain unvaccinated. Many of these children will be among the 120,000 students who were lost to the system during the attempt at online teaching. The online engagement of some other students, who either did not have Internet connectivity or could not afford it continuously, was sporadic. It is also clear that in-class teaching is the more efficient way to deliver education.
In the circumstances, Jamaica has a significant amount of catching up to do, or face the possibility of a large swathe of the 2020 and 2021 cohorts becoming something of a lost generation of students. Vaccinating students, teachers and Jamaicans generally is part of the solution. So, too, is the robust enforcement of other measures, like the wearing of masks and limiting crowds in non-critical circumstances.