Editorial | What would trigger vaccine mandate?
Having abandoned his weekly three-day lock down regime while strong pockets of opposition to COVID-19 inoculations remain, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has to now offer a new and effective strategy to contain the virus, and break the back of the vaccine resistance if Jamaica is to reach herd immunity.
Mr Holness confronts this conundrum amid a growing concern that urging people to wear masks and attempts at moral suasion to get people vaccinated may not be sufficient to avert a collapse of the island’s economy. The suggestion, increasingly, is that the Government may be forced to follow a growing number of countries in instituting vaccine mandates.
It not that the mandate was totally off the table in Jamaica. Mr Holness, in the past, conceded that it may at some point be necessary, but that would have to be preceded by a national education campaign. The question for the prime minister, though, is what are the medical, economic and political thresholds that have to be met for the Government to conclude that the time has come?
LAY OUT BENCHMARKS
Mr Holness should begin to lay out these benchmarks and encourage serious discussion around them, so that if, or when, the Government has to move, it cannot be accused of ambushing anyone, or acting without transparency.
The data offer a bleak picture of Jamaica’s coronavirus crisis, adding to the pressures on the administration. In the month up to September 17 – last Friday – 20,041 new cases COVID-19 were recorded in Jamaica. Four hundred and fifty-seven people died from the virus. In the previous one-month period (July to August), there were only 8,105 new cases and 180 deaths. The numbers were even lower in the month before that (June to July): 1,604 cases and 128 deaths. Indeed, over the three-month period, the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Jamaica since the first one in March 2020, rocketed by approximately 60 per cent to 79,127.
It is figures like these that caused a number of countries, including the United States, Jamaica’s main market for tourists, as well as Britain, to advise their citizens to be wary about travelling to the island. They also prompted Prime Minister Holness to institute the rolling lockdowns, which he recently lifted.
Tourism, in its broadest measure, accounts for around a third of Jamaica’s economic output. The sector’s collapse last year was the major contributor to the double-digit shrinkage in real gross domestic product. Continued weakness in the industry, and lockdowns that keep businesses shuttered, could undermine the early signs of growth in the economy.
Ultimately, the way out of the dilemma, and returning the society to a semblance of normality, rests on having sufficient Jamaicans vaccinated to halt the spread of COVID-19 – the point of so-called herd immunity. The Government’s vaccination target is 65 per cent of the population, although independent experts say that a better number, especially with the emergence of new, more virulent strains of the coronavirus, is upwards of 80 per cent. But only around seven per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, although, overall, about 20 per cent has had at least one dose of the required two doses for full inoculation.
The administration believes that notwithstanding recent supply glitches and early challenges in acquiring the drugs, it can source sufficient vaccines to reach its 65 per cent target by next March. This newspaper hopes that is true. But there are other potential pitfalls.
AGAINST TAKING VACCINES
A recent poll for the RJRGLEANER Communications Group by Don Anderson found that 25 per cent of adult Jamaicans are adamantly against taking the vaccines. Their concerns range from the safety of the drugs to weird conspiracy claims, such as that the vaccines are designed to take control of people by invading their DNA.
Prime Minister Holness hopes to get past these hurdles with public education and moral suasion. Which is understandable, given that the same poll found that 70 per cent of Jamaicans are against a government vaccine mandate. He no doubt also has in mind the calculus of competitive politics.
But Mr Holness faces another problem. Assuming that an anti-vaccine position is baked in among 25 per cent of adult Jamaicans, as the Anderson poll suggests is the case, plus the hesitancy among another fifth of the population, reaching the Government’s 65 per cent vaccination target will be challenging. It will be even more so at the 80-85 per cent rate that the independent experts say is where safety lies.
Dilemmas such as these that confront Mr Holness are faced by other countries’ leaders, including in the Caribbean, where, according to Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, the region’s civilisation is up against an “existential threat”. Mr Browne, in the face of hesitancy, has instituted widespread mandates – among the most aggressive in the world. Public-sector employees as well as people who work in education, public transportation and ports of entry must be vaccinated. In the United States, President Joe Biden has also insisted that all federal employees and contractors, as well as workers at companies with 100 or more, have to be vaccinated. Some states have imposed similar mandates on health workers and teachers.
It is notable that in the absence of similar mandates in Jamaica, the umbrella trade union group, the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, joined a raft of private–sector groups in setting out protocols for firms to follow, to be on the right side of the law, if they decide to demand that workers must be vaccinated. Prime Minister Holness, based on his latest statement on the matter, now believes that a national vaccine mandate would pass the constitutional test. If he is to be ready for all eventualities, he now needs to engage in a broader and deeper discussion.