by Earl Bousquet
The first week of the second month of the 21st Year of the 21st Century saw the 2021 COVID-19 vaccination arms race shift into top gear in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as governments scramble to assure skeptical populations they will start getting vaccinated by the end of this month.
This follows assurances from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to start delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX facility subscribed to by 36 countries in The Americas.
Some 35 million initial doses have been assigned out of 280 million promised the region by year-end; and Saint Lucia will receive 74,400, which (at two jabs per person) will vaccinate 20% of the population of just over 180,000.
But nations qualifying for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine rollout are understandably anxious, especially following the loud fallout between the producers and the European Union (EU) over delivery failures — and haunted by their mainly uninformed populations being mostly unwilling to take the vaccine – as low as 17% in Saint Lucia.
Saint Lucia will launch a three-month vaccine program to start March 1 that reflects a fundamental change from the earlier ‘Herd Immunity’ approach requiring vaccinating up to 70% of populations for best results.
But the government is also reacting to unhealthy increases in the number of persons testing COVID-19 positive.
On February 5 — three days after Prime Minister Allen Chastanet’s latest COVID-related address to the nation — the Department of Health and Wellness announced 257 new positive cases detected at the official Ezra Long lab, taking the national total to 1,813.
The February 4 amount was a three-day tally, but the last day’s amount equaled the two previous days combined, confirming rapid community spread island-wide.
Governments — together and separately — press international entities to avoid their disadvantages in size and economy and don’t lock them out of the race for supplies, while also seeking independent guarantees of access to other vaccines not yet on the small table.
Saint Lucia’s 18 COVID-related deaths tally relatively high by CARICOM per capita standards.
But the Caribbean has fared relatively well within The Americas, the vast bulk of the million deaths reported by PAHO Director Dr Clarissa Etienne at the end of January located in North, Central and South America.
Scientists attached to the University of the West indies (The UWI) COVID-19 Task Force also say while there’s no room for complacency, the Caribbean has largely escaped the COVID-19 death sentences visited on other parts of the world in its first year.
But the rapidly-rising numbers, especially in tourism-dependent islands, are also causing migraine headaches for governments still counting the costs of quarantine violations and other abuses of CIVID-19 protocols during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
On the evening of February 2, Saint Lucia announced another extension of emergency measures by one week (until February 10), with support from the Chamber of Commerce, as well as Bankers, Doctors, Manufacturers and Hotels and Tourism associations.
Opposition Leader Philip J. Pierre also pledged his Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) will support ‘any government decision taken based on science and the advice of professionals.’
But all that was like a proverbial calm before a coming hurricane.
The next day, February 3, the Saint Lucia Gazette published a Statutory Declaration for another ‘State of Public Emergency’ — commencing February 11 and ending May 16, 2021.
The government’s COVID-19 fightback also includes heavier policing, tougher fines and possible stiff confines for protocol violations, especially not wearing masks.
However, some 200 newly-enlisted ‘COVID Wardens’ with powers-of-arrest came under intense public criticism this week, following negative Social Media coverage of an attempt by three young women officers to arrest a resisting male offender.
Criticism of the wardens was however drowned overnight by an online protest by inmates at the Bordelais Correctional Facility, leading to a wider protest after fire was set to mattresses in one unit.
Inmates allegedly attacked prison officers, resulting in three hurt and hospitalized, including a male allegedly shot in the back by armed police summoned by the prison command.
Following the earlier death of an inmate who worked in the prison’s kitchen after hospitalization for COVID-related complications and confirmation that eight among them had tested positive, young tech-savvy prisoners at the overcrowded facility took to the internet to complain — by live Facebook and Instagram video feeds, using illegal cell phones.
They complained about being uniformed about the virus, lack of Social Distancing and other COVID-19 health and safety concerns, as well as about ‘deplorable conditions’ and the slow judicial process delaying many outstanding cases, some by years.
The prison protest drew public support for calls for releasing first-offenders and inmates serving short sentences for non-violent crimes, Minister of National Security Hermangild Francis responding that while he does not oppose the suggested early conditional releases, established procedures will have to be followed.
While singing together and dancing separately, CARICOM leaders are also increasingly stepping closer to ensuring all available and approved vaccines are included on the region’s choice list – and they definitely don’t aim to put all their eggs in one vaccine basket.
And prospects of widening the region’s range of vaccine choices indeed look bright:
Cuba this week announced two more of its three remaining Soberania candidate vaccines will go on trial as of March 1; Russia’s much-vilified Sputnik vaccine got the green light from ‘The Lancet’ medical journal; Johnson & Johnson applied for approval of its ‘one-jab’ vaccine; and China approved a second brand of its Sinovac.
Meanwhile, the new 100-day emergency is also on the Order Paper for the next meeting of Saint Lucia’s parliament (February 9), when the Government and Opposition MPs can be expected to jab and spar over how best to beat COVID-19 in 2021 — during which General Elections are also constitutionally due here.
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