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CARICOM: Vaccine public good outweighs protests

Published:Wednesday | December 15, 2021 | 12:13 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
CARICOM Secretary General Dr Carla Barnett.
CARICOM Secretary General Dr Carla Barnett.

CARICOM Secretary General Dr Carla Barnett stopped short of definitively supporting COVID-19 vaccine mandates across the region on Tuesday, opting instead to point out that governments have a right to protect their citizens.

There has been strong evangelism for inoculation from respective heads of governments, the majority of whom have insisted that wide-scale vaccination is the only means of reining in the rampaging pandemic.

But vigorous pushback has come from a wide cross section of populations regionally, particularly in Jamaica, which is the vaccination laggard of the Caribbean with 19 per cent of its population fully vaccinated. Besides Haiti, Jamaica has the lowest per-capita take-up in the region.

The Pan American Health Organization has indicated that five CARICOM countries – Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Haiti, and Grenada – are in danger of not meeting the World Health Organization’s target of having 40 per cent of their population fully vaccinated by year end.

Barnett acknowledged that CARICOM could not influence a mandate across the board, pointing to varying bits of legislation in each jurisdiction. But she said while citizens have a constitutional right to refuse the vaccine, that posture had limitations.

“Yes, you have a constitutional right to not take a vaccine, if that’s what you don’t want to do, but other members of society have a constitutional right to be protected from infections,” Barnett asserted.

She was speaking during Tuesday’s virtual press conference from the CARICOM Secretariat in Georgetown, Guyana.

Antigua and Barbuda, where a vaccine mandate has been implemented for government workers, leads CARICOM member states in vaccination efforts with 59 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

Belize and Barbados follow with 49 per cent full inoculation; Guyana, 36 per cent; St Kitts and Nevis, 47 per cent; Trinidad and Tobago, 47 per cent; Suriname, 38 per cent; Dominica, 38 per cent; St Lucia, 26 per cent; Jamaica, 19 per cent; and Haiti, one per cent.

“We have to be very cognisant of where rights and responsibilities cross one another. There’s no right that I am aware of that does not have some kind of expectation around how that right is exercised,” the secretary general said.

Barnett said governments within CARICOM have a responsibility to ensure that there is an acceptable level of protection for citizens against a virus that has accounted for 28,525 deaths and 2.1 million infections across the Caribbean, according to data from the Caribbean Public Health Agency.

She said if citizens wished to exercise their right to not be vaccinated, they would have to accept the responsibility of testing.

“All rights are circumscribed by responsibilities,” said Barnett.

The consequence of vaccinate-or-test workplace mandates in Jamaica has pitted resistant employees against their bosses, triggering a flurry of lawsuits. A court ruled last Friday that a suit against distributorship giant Cari-Med should proceed on contract law, not on constitutional grounds.

There have been anti-mandate protests in Jamaica and other CARICOM members, with Vincentian Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves suffering a bloody face in an August demonstration.

Barnett said that it is up to countries to sort through what is appropriate and legally possible where mandates are concerned.

“It’s not something that could be implemented at all from a secretariat point of view or even from a Community decision point of view. It would have to work through the national legal systems of each country,” Barnett said, noting that procuring legal advice separate from the one obtained by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) on the matter would likely yield a similar result.

The OECS was advised that there is ample provision in the constitutions of its member states to support mandatory vaccination laws.