Having written briefly about coronavirus vaccines only last month, I hesitate to return to the subject today. However, this column not only allows me to offer my own views on a range of issues but also provides an opportunity to articulate as best I can the concerns of other people whose voices do not get heard. At this stage of the virus pandemic, people are expressing anxiety about the urgent need for a vaccination programme here in The Bahamas - and it seems this is increasingly seen as the single most important issue facing the country at the moment.
According to a report in The Tribune on February 12, officials anticipate that 100,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will arrive in the country ‘sometime between now and the end of the second quarter of the year through the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility’. Some people consider this is too imprecise since it could mean a delay until as late as June. So, while understanding the government’s wish to work through the WHO, it might be useful to look at how other countries are coping with the problem in case we might be able to benefit from their experience.
Take Britain, for example, which has suffered one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the world. The government has been under fire for its claimed poor handling of the virus crisis. The litany of complaints includes moving from one lockdown to another with measures that have crippled the economy and seriously affected civil liberties without stopping transmission of the virus. Then there was the bad policy of chucking people out of hospitals and into nursing and care homes and the government’s obsession with protecting the National Health Service while other medical treatment that people desperately needed was cancelled. But, finally, with a vaccination programme which began on December 8 last year, the overall situation is improving; not least because, with considerable foresight, substantial numbers of vaccine doses from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna were ordered in advance.
At the beginning, the British government set itself a target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable by the middle of February. Happily, this has been met and is being hailed as a considerable achievement. Interestingly, the four priority groups established were: being 70-years-old or over, frontline health and social care workers, care home residents and those at a very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus – and now the stage has been reached that people in their 60s are being offered the vaccine and those over 70 who have not yet received a jab can go online or telephone to book an appointment. As far as I can gather, nobody will yet say for sure but the presumption is that there must be a link between these 15 million jabs (and mounting by the day) and a current drop in the number of UK infections and deaths - in particular, deaths among the over-85s have fallen at twice the rate among younger people.
Despite the continuing controversy about quarantine for those arriving in the UK - with new regulations coming into force yesterday - Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now saying he is cautiously optimistic about being able to loosen the lockdown restrictions soon and, in particular, open schools on March 8. Apparently, a detailed plan - dubbed a ‘roadmap to freedom’ - will be published on February 22. While he has lauded the UK’s achievement in developing a vaccine, substantially increasing coronavirus testing (now being done door-to-door) and making supplies of PPE readily available, the latest good news is that British scientists are reported to be developing a “universal mutation-proof COVID jab” that they claim should beat all variants of the virus.
To add to the optimism, the Health minister has predicted that by September, after all adults have been offered the vaccination, coronavirus will be a disease the UK can live with like the flu. It will be a treatable illness, though some people will remain more vulnerable than others.
Taking account of all this and the progress other countries are making in relation to vaccinations – for example, the US which, according to the latest figures has distributed about 70 million doses and administered more than 50 million – it is clear mass vaccination is the way forward to beat the virus. However, it seems likely that social distancing precautions will have to remain in place for the foreseeable future so there is still no immediate prospect of regaining all the freedoms we once took for granted.
From what I hear, a major worry for some people is that, as other countries accelerate their vaccination programmes, future international travel may be limited to those who have received the required dose. As everyone knows, the US now demands from those entering the country evidence of a recent negative virus test together with a period of quarantine. A demand for proof of vaccination could easily follow, especially because of the good progress of its own vaccination programme, and the same could apply to other countries – for example, Spain has already said that this summer it will accept without quarantine visitors from Britain who have ‘vaccine passports’.
Of course, with excessive worldwide demand there is pressure on the various vaccine providers to maintain adequate supplies. But, given the small population of The Bahamas, it is hard to believe that an adequate number of doses cannot be acquired at short notice and given to most of the adult population despite the logistical problems of organising vaccinations around the Family Islands. According to published data, the AstraZeneca vaccine is priced at less than $5 per dose. But the question of cost should not anyway be a factor because the richer countries, who have already carried out so many of their own vaccinations, have made it clear that it is in the interest of the whole world to contain the virus in order to lift travel restrictions. So, international funding assistance in various different forms is widely available. It seems that many realise the difficulties of dealing with this huge issue. But, since mass vaccination is essential to restoring the country to some form of normality, many hope that this can be achieved sooner than is predicted at the moment.
Never have so few had the power over so many
The big tech companies appear to be under particular scrutiny at present. It is said pioneers of the Internet saw it as a way to share information widely without government control or the potential editorial bias of newspapers, and it is certainly the case that digital technology has brought about a revolution in how people acquire information so that facts across the whole spectrum of human knowledge are literally at our fingertips.
The so-called tech giants – Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft – maintain they are not ‘publishers’ but ‘content providers’ and cannot be held accountable for what millions of users choose to post. They therefore receive special immunity from liability because, as I understand it, US lawmakers believed they would be neutral platforms. But, by their nature, they now exert massive control over the lives of members of the public so that as well as being a force for good they can also become a vehicle for discord and distrust because of their all-pervading power and their potential misuse of it as monopolies.
Reportedly, at some point, as their power grew while becoming the principal source of information for the world, the tech giants made a conscious decision that they were no longer going to remain a neutral forum. In the words of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, they have more control and power over information than any entity in history, and they are now engaged in censoring and banning individuals or groups that they disagree with on the basis of certain self-determined standards. The inevitable consequence is that they have become platforms that exercise political bias and this tends to favour the Left while targeting conservative views - including conservative media organizations and journalistic output - so that those on the Right are silenced and those on the Left are not. It is because of this power and influence they are seen by some as a threat to democracy.
There is no space today to examine the complex issue of free speech and all its ramifications. But, in the colourful words of one commentator, what this whole issue is about is a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires taking it upon themselves to censor and influence the institutions of US democracy – including, of course, the permanent suspension of former President Trump’s Twitter account which seems to have brought the issue to a head.
In effect, the online giants now enjoy power and influence in public life above and beyond anything held by big corporations in the past. They can make or break a president, but none was elected to office and, what is worse, they are unaccountable. Some say this a recipe for tyranny. To quote Ted Cruz again, he is recorded as almost snarling at the CEO of Twitter : ‘ Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report’. Thus, as long as the spoken and written word is within the law -- for example, in relation to defamation, hate speech, profanity, obscenity, decency and classified information, amongst others – critics ask on what basis should those who control the platforms on the Internet have the right to exercise censorship by judging what information should be made publicly available.
There are those who consider the World Wide Web needs to be regulated more and mechanisms and protocols put in place to prevent the spread of so-called fake news and misinformation alongside protections for legitimate news, though how to determine the difference will be fraught with difficulty. Many disagreed with what Trump had to say, but, as the elected President of the United States it was important that he should be heard by the people.
US Politics shows its nasty side
In recent days, so much has been said and reported about the short-lived Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump, which ended on Saturday with his acquittal, that any further comment on the merits of the opposing cases would be superfluous. That said, I imagine most people would agree that the process has damaged the reputation of the US body politic as well as the image of the country as the cradle of democracy and a model of good governance. In the circumstances, I wonder whether others might agree, too, that since the outcome was predictable - given the balanced make-up of the Senate and the need for a two thirds vote to convict - the whole trial turned out to be something of a meaningless exercise amid allegations of vengeance and vindictiveness.
The assault on the Capitol on January 6 was a terrible and unprecedented event which has been unreservedly condemned by all. What is more, I believe Trump’s incendiary language in his speech to supporters earlier in the day was both unwise and reckless. But proving that he incited the assault is another matter altogether, particularly after he had specifically called for a ‘peaceful and patriotic’ demonstration.
It is the case, of course, that divisions within the country as a whole have always been there to a greater or lesser extent - as evidenced most recently by the violent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and riots of last summer - and Trump’s stance and actions in relation to so many controversial issues over the last four years have hardly helped to heal such divisions. But, following last November’s election and Trump’s accusations of fraud, they have become even wider and deeper.
What struck me forcibly at the conclusion of the impeachment proceedings was the sheer nastiness of politics in the US which have always had a reputation for rough and tumble but now seem to have sunk to a new low. The deep antipathy between Democrats and Republicans is there for all to see and it seems little effort is made to disguise it. The bitterness and rancour shown by Democratic leaders after losing their second impeachment case against Trump, as well as the stridency of their language in condemning and vilifying him, were pretty shocking. The vitriol and vituperation has been extreme and they have personally denounced Republican Senators for voting to acquit instead of respecting their right to do so.
For admirers and lovers of America - and I count myself among them having been at school in Massachusetts as an exchange student and a frequent visitor over the years both on business and to see friends - it is deeply disillusioning and depressing to see the country’s national politics in such disarray together with the lowering of standards of respect and civility in political discourse.
President Biden claims to want to unite the country. Now that the Democrats hold both the White House and Congress, perhaps the first step in such a process should be to rein in his own governmental colleagues.