Tue | Jun 15, 2021

No love for Mia Amor? - Vaccine power play rankles Cabinet as Jamaica could miss February deadline

Published:Tuesday | February 23, 2021 | 12:07 AM
Barbados PM Mia Mottley and Jamaica PM Andrew Holness.
Barbados PM Mia Mottley and Jamaica PM Andrew Holness.

As pressure mounts on the Holness administration over Jamaica’s perceived slow pace in its vaccination drive, it has emerged that India had offered up to 50,000 doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca to the Government before it had got the seal of approval...

As pressure mounts on the Holness administration over Jamaica’s perceived slow pace in its vaccination drive, it has emerged that India had offered up to 50,000 doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca to the Government before it had got the seal of approval from the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the negotiations had foundered, The Gleaner understands, because India sought to wed at least two of its indigenous emerging vaccines as part of a package it sought to market to the northern Caribbean island.

“They sent us a letter pushing their vaccines – AstraZeneca and two others – and we sent them back to say, ‘We appreciate the offer, we would prefer WHO-approved vaccines,’” a source close to the negotiations said.

The wooing and arm-wrestling between global manufacturers and smaller nations offer insight into vaccine nationalism that is an increasingly important frontier of diplomacy and foreign policy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That political theatre has taken on new wings as it becomes likely that Jamaica will miss its month-end pledge to secure an initial cache of vaccines through its COVAX partners.

India’s high commissioner to Jamaica, Rungsung Masakui, has, however, denied that the Holness administration had politely declined an earlier offer separate from the 500,000 doses on the table to CARICOM. But he said promised vaccines are firmly on the agenda.

“We don’t force anyone. There are many options,” said the high commissioner.

“My Government will be locating a certain number of doses for Jamaica which will be coming very soon. Just be patient for a few days,” Masakui said, refusing to say the exact quantity.

Barbados and Dominica are leading the vaccine race in CARICOM, having procured 100,000 and 70,000 doses, respectively, of Oxford/AstraZeneca from India.

Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados and former chairman of the regional bloc, has assumed the posture of pan-Caribbean leadership of the vaccine drive, triggering scowls and hisses in Holness’ inner sanctum.

There was slight embarrassment for Trinidad and Tobago’s Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, who apologised last week after coming under pressure for thanking India, instead of Barbados, for the vaccine gift.

“What she has also done is work the Caribbean by offering everybody – 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 doses – and in doing so, she builds up her own leadership in the region,” said a confidant of Holness, apparently miffed “that everybody is tweeting this and retweeting that” about Mottley’s largesse.

Chilly relations

Jamaica House did not respond to queries on India’s initial vaccine offer or on the state of Kingston’s relations with Bridgetown, but the temperature has been chilly since Mottley chided Holness and other regional leaders for having multilateral talks with then United States President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in 2019.

Talk of Jamaica’s slothful rise from the blocks has egged on Opposition Leader Mark Golding and his foreign affairs spokesperson, Lisa Hanna, to poke the eye of the Holness administration.

“... You just have to look at the sharing of the vaccines across the region to see that we’re alone,” Hanna said in a weekend social-media post.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, however, told The Gleaner that the Government would not resile from its vaccine policy to use only WHO-approved vaccines.

“We are very careful. I see the PNP saying we are last. This is not an issue of last or first, this is an issue of safety first,” Tufton shot back.

“If something were to go wrong, we would be crucified for using a vaccine on the population that has not been approved,” he added.

Tufton argued that a false impression is being given that mass inoculation is being conducted across the Caribbean.

“There is a major gap between the talk and the deliverable. The impression is being given that somehow the entire world is being vaccinated. Not because a man say he has the money to purchase the vaccine means that he’s going to get the vaccine,” he said.

Questions fielded to Mottley were not answered up to press time, but Charles Jong, director of communications and social media in the Barbadian prime minister’s office, said the issues “seem more appropriate to be directed at the Government of Jamaica”.

Jamaica House did not offer a response on the record, but officials close to the prime minister scoffed at Barbados’ vaccine diplomacy.

One Holness loyalist poured scorn on Mottley’s charity, dubbing cheerleaders “short-sighted”.

“When a country has the population of Portmore, and they say they have 5,000 doses, it seems nuff,” the official, who requested anonymity, said Monday evening as the Cabinet met.

Another was more scathing, saying Barbados’ vaccine donations was not “a public-health imperative, but to buy influence”.

Meanwhile, asked whether Jamaica had been offered the AstraZeneca vaccine, Matthew Kent, director of global media relations for the drugmaker, deflected.

“Following the WHO emergency use listing for AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, we are working with the COVAX Facility to begin supplying the vaccine around the world,” said Kent.

“In the first half of 2021, it is hoped that more than 300 million doses of the vaccine will be made available to 145 countries through COVAX, pending supply and operational challenges. These doses will be allocated equitably according to the COVAX Allocation Framework.”

Tufton had said Jamaica will get approximately 140,000 doses of vaccines from World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility and up to 249,000 of the AstraZeneca vaccines starting in mid-February.

Vaccine nationalism is rapidly becoming a global problem, with deep-pocketed governments pre-purchasing the jab since early last year, said David Jessop, a consultant to the Caribbean Council and its former director.

That’s not a luxury available to Jamaica or other CARICOM nations desperate to revive a comatose tourism industry, he said.

“Unless the WHO-linked COVAX facility is able to start delivering vaccines to the Caribbean and other regions very soon, the region will suffer,” Jessop, editor of Caribbean Insight and Cuba Briefing, told The Gleaner on Monday.

“The challenge, in my view, is not so much the slowness of the Jamaican or other governments’ responses, it is more about inequality in the global system.”

Professor John Rapley cautioned that the focus on vaccines as a silver bullet missed the point countries that exerted control over the pandemic did so without vaccines, but by using effective public-health measures. Vaccine-dependent nations like Britain and the US have performed poorly, he added.

“I don’t mean to downplay the pernicious effect of vaccine nationalism,” said Rapley, political economist at the University of Cambridge and senior fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.

“I just want us to remember that the great gains in the battle against COVID-19 come from more prosaic measures, like mobility control and public-health initiatives, in which developing countries like Jamaica actually enjoy a comparative advantage.”