By Malcolm Strachan
WITH the arrival of 20,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, there should be a sense of relief after a full year of a global pandemic. However, worries persist over the need to convince the community to take the jab.
As reports of temporary suspensions of this vaccine in Europe and Asia have emerged, India, where the vaccine was made, has decided to carry out a deeper investigation into the side effects that may have caused blood clots in some recipients.
On Bahamian soil, the government is optimistic and assured the batches being investigated are different from the ones we’ve received.
Health Minister Renward Wells also sought to quell concerns, saying that incidents of blood clotting did not seem to be statistically significant. As for what that says to Bahamians less open to taking the jab, that’s not hard to tell when scrolling through your social media feeds.
The sole interest right now for any government would be for its citizens to get vaccinated. Especially for a tourism destination such as ours, our primary revenue stream requires visitors to land on our shores, fill our hotels and patronise Bahamian businesses. Without that, we’ve seen record unemployment and the government has had to borrow millions of dollars to keep businesses afloat, fund social assistance and feed citizens forced into poverty.
It makes perfect sense as to why vaccinations are a priority for any government.
As many Bahamians see it, the Prime Minister has been the torchbearer for the government’s public relations campaign, using his national addresses as a platform to highlight the importance of Bahamians taking the vaccine as soon as it became available.
The COVID-19 Vaccine Consultative Committee has also been key in public awareness efforts, but when we hear some of the questions that still exist in the public sphere – particularly in the medical community – we know there is more that needs to be done.
As for the Prime Minister, he has made clear there will be no mandate to take the vaccine, while outlining how critical it is for us to return to normalcy.
During his February 21 address, he said: “By getting vaccinated you will also help our economy to recover faster. When a large percentage of Bahamians are vaccinated, we will be able to responsibly open up even more.
“More economic activity will be possible, leading to more jobs, more working hours, more family income, more small business activity and a return of more tourists in the months ahead.
“It is also quite possible that being vaccinated will be a requirement by other countries for you to travel overseas. Other countries may not allow you to enter their borders unless you have proof of vaccination.
“We are hearing that cruise lines may require their passengers to show that they have been vaccinated. Proof of vaccination may be one of the critical measures in helping the tourism industry to bounce back around the world.
“As a leading tourism destination, we must play our part and set an example for the world.”
Indisputably, the public needs to be aware of all of these implications. This is a time to win hearts and minds – and perhaps it is time for the government to do its own study and report of its findings. Unfortunately, directing us to the WHO and PAHO has not been comforting to the public.
People would much rather hear from our local health professionals and the government on vaccine safety – particularly one that has blown the timeline for vaccine production out of the stratosphere. The public needs to buy into the process – or there will be major economic and political implications ahead.
On top of what it is already doing now, it would be useful for the government to engage more advocates from the medical community to trumpet its messaging. But up to last week, a large section of the medical community still said they were in the dark about the government’s plans. Consultant Physicians Staff Association president Dr Sabriquet Pinder-Butler voiced the association’s “mixed feelings” about the rollout last week, saying a lack of knowledge has left a lot of members and healthcare workers with a lot of concerns about the vaccine. This comes of course as healthcare workers are due to be among the first recipients as jabs begin.
The church community, whom we all know has a vast amount of influence within the country, has also been undecided about the jab due to moral issues surrounding the use of aborted fetal cells in vaccine production.
Then there is the host of misinformation circulating on social media.
When we take these conflicting narratives into account, the government has to be the most trustworthy voice in the room.
To avoid a public relations nightmare, the government needs to tactically approach this rollout, ensuring the appropriate stakeholders, particularly those in the medical community that can help educate the masses and reduce fear of the vaccine, feel included.
In addition to that, we should also pay special attention to India’s investigation of the instances of blood clotting after the administering of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Certainly, vaccinating our people should be a priority, but not more of a priority than ensuring it is done safely – something we believe the government wants to do.
We are fully aware of the need to return to normalcy and more of us can get on board if we feel it is transparent and safe.