‘I feel bullied’
Mandatory COVID-19 vaccination a sore point across the Caribbean
Twenty-nine-year-old Cassandra* is an employee at a popular resort in Antigua and Barbuda. Instead of preparing to celebrate her first anniversary on the job on September 27, Cassandra is worried sick that the coronavirus pandemic could leave her...
Twenty-nine-year-old Cassandra* is an employee at a popular resort in Antigua and Barbuda. Instead of preparing to celebrate her first anniversary on the job on September 27, Cassandra is worried sick that the coronavirus pandemic could leave her struggling for survival, but not for the reasons you might think.
Like thousands of her fellow Antiguans, Cassandra has refused to be vaccinated against the deadly virus. And with the Gaston Browne government about to introduce the most sweeping of mandatory vaccination measures – the first in the Caribbean to do so – the young woman fears that by exercising her “right not to be vaccinated”, she could be left rather light in the pocket, or worse, driven straight to the breadline.
“I think what they are trying to do is if you don’t get vaccinated then you won’t be able to live because you have to work, and if you don’t work, you don’t have money, then you won’t be able to pay your bills, buy groceries, and stuff like that,” the resort worker told The Sunday Gleaner.
“To me, it’s just putting somebody between a rock and a hard place. It’s like you have no option but to take the vaccine if you want to live.”
Unlike Cassandra, Deborah*, an employee at a government-owned statutory corporation, is fully vaccinated. Yet she is conflicted over the mandatory measures.
“I am not one that agrees for people’s choices being taken away from them,” Deborah shared. “But you have to look at things from two sides, even three sides, and right now, this COVID-19, it’s a mess, so I believe it is a good thing making it mandatory, but on the other hand, don’t get me wrong, I don’t really agree for people’s choices being taken away from them.”
In Antigua and Barbuda, just over 33 per cent of the eligible population were fully vaccinated as of September 16, according to Pharmaceutical Technology’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, well short of the 70 per cent or so needed to reach herd immunity.
Like many of its sister Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, the Delta variant is driving the number of infections up to near unmanageable levels, threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system and further wreck the shattered economy.
In its update published on Thursday, September 16, the ministry of health in St John’s indicated that there were 159 new cases as of last Monday, taking the number of active cases to 857, of whom 818 were in isolation.
These are the numbers that drove the Browne administration to introduce what Jamaican attorney Michelle Russell described as “wide and punitive” mandatory mandates.
Arguing that the pandemic represented “an existential threat”, the Government announced that as of September 20, all unvaccinated government workers, including the public service, statutory corporations, and companies in which it owns majority shares “shall be required to remain at home until proof of vaccination is provided”.
It added that as of October 1, unvaccinated public-sector employees, including the defence force and the police “shall be required to remain at home” until they can show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Those who fail to comply will not be paid, warned the administration. Exceptions have been made for people who can’t be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.
The policy also applies to front-line workers in the tourism industry, including those who provide transportation and entertainment, who risk losing their licences to operate if they fail to comply. And with the administration imploring the private sector to follow its lead, Cassandra is worried that she could be forced to act against her will.
“I feel bullied,” the young resort worker declared, repeating for emphasis. “I feel bullied. It’s like, you know, you don’t want to do something, and they push you to a point that you have to do it, but you will not be happy that you actually do it, but you have to because you’re bullied into doing it and you have no other choice.”
The current surge in infections, hospitalisations, and deaths across CARICOM – there were more than 100,000 new cases and 1,400 deaths between July 2021 and September 12, 2021, according to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) – prompted the heads of government to meet virtually in emergency session on September 13 to consider a regional response.
With CARPHA revealing that the vaccination rate within the grouping ranged from a high of 58.7 per cent in Bermuda to a low of 0.1 per cent in Haiti, the leaders “expressed dismay” at the level of vaccine hesitancy and urged people across the region “to get vaccinated as failure to do so puts the health sector at great risk of being overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 cases”, stated a release from the secretariat.
“They called particularly on the front-line workers, including nurses, doctors, security personnel, and teachers, to take the vaccines available given their critical roles in the society,” it stressed.
However, there was no mention in the document of mandatory vaccine mandates, with the heads of government seemingly leaving it to the individual countries to decide.
Anthony Astaphan, a noted regional constitutional lawyer who advises the Browne government, told The Sunday Gleaner that it was high time the region agreed a common position on the issue.
“That should have been done an extraordinarily long time ago because I think the circumstances that we are experiencing now would have been predictable,” argued the lawyer.
Astaphan advised that with the situation becoming dire in many CARICOM countries, including Jamaica, the heads of government may be forced to follow the Antigua example.
“[With] the current crisis facing the CARICOM countries – Jamaica, Bahamas, Trinidad, Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica, Antigua – it would be extraordinary if the prime ministers kept their hands folded and continued with this mantra of no mandatory vaccinations,” charged the attorney. “At least they should add the words, ‘for now’, because the circumstances are changing rapidly and decisions have to be made and may have to be made in the right direction, which is mandatory or compulsory or universal vaccination – choose whichever phrase you think is the more appropriate one to use.”
POSSIBILITY FOR JAMAICA
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness has said that mandatory vaccination could not be imposed until a public education campaign has been exhausted, a greater number of persons were vaccinated, and the jab was more easily accessible, but the measure could be implemented in the future.
With the number of confirmed cases rising by treble digits each day, COVID-19-related deaths - at 1,821 on Thursday and the vaccination rate at approximately 7.3 per cent of the eligible population - all eyes are on the prime minister to know when that will be.
He may be emboldened by an RJRGLEANER-commissioned Don Anderson poll conducted between August 19 and September 3 among 1,003 respondents, which found that only 25 per cent of respondents would take the vaccine, while a similar number said they would not, and 70 per cent indicated that they were opposed to a mandatory vaccine mandate.
Holness may also consider a recent opinion by two prominent Caribbean-born jurists – Sir Dennis Byron, the former Caribbean Court of Justice president, and Rosemarie Antoine, dean of the law faculty at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies – that governments of the seven-member Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) had constitutional support for mandatory vaccination.
In a 16-page confidential brief titled “The Legal Dimensions of Mandatory/Compulsory Requirements for COVID-19 Vaccinations, August 2021,” the two concluded that the subregional countries would be on firm legal grounds in pursuing mandatory vaccination laws even in the face of counter-arguments alleging violations of rights.
Although the brief was to the OECS leaders, Astaphan said the conclusion can also apply to Jamaica and the rest of CARICOM, and he advised the leaders to urgently follow Antigua’s lead.
However, any move to impose a mandatory vaccination policy here without first going through a thorough and transparent process, including a broad education programme, full access to the jab by every Jamaican, and meaningful cooperation with all stakeholders, would face stiff opposition from Granville Valentine, general secretary of the National Workers Union of Jamaica.
‘TANTAMOUNT TO RAPE’
The fully vaccinated Valentine – who also made it clear that his immediate family were also fully immunized – argued that any decision to take the jab ought to be a personal choice although he was prepared to lend his support if it were an absolute last resort.
“I am worried that we are looking at a shortcut to impose on people and take away their rights without the type of dialogue, the type of education, and the type of access. So it must be a process, and if we reach there eventually and that is the only alternative, then it is something that I would support but surely not at this stage,” Valentine told The Sunday Gleaner.
“When you look at mandatory vaccination, it can be viewed as tantamount to rape, where you are imposing on an individual in a free world to inject something into their body without their consent.”
A spirited and sometimes ugly debate over the issue is raging in Barbados, where the government continues to try moral suasion to get the population to take the vaccine while many in the private sector impose their own mandates, which often demand that workers be inoculated or undergo frequent tests.
Such measures are of concern to Michelle Russell, the Jamaican attorney whose entire 18 years of legal practice has been in Barbados. Russell, who specialises in employment law, charged that it was “palpably unfair” to place the responsibility for reaching herd immunity “on the backs of employees” whose livelihoods were being placed under threat.
“The burden for [reaching] herd immunity should not fall on the workforce,” she told The Sunday Gleaner, adding that though laws dealing with unfair dismissal – as in the case of Barbados – and unjust dismissal, as in Jamaica’s case, were somewhat different, common law dictated that any party that unilaterally changed the terms of a contract was in breach of the agreement.
“If you’ve been working for an employer for five, ten, twenty years, and it was never a requirement of your employment that you’d be vaccinated, for the employer to now introduce that as a term of the contract, he requires your consent,” she stressed.
“I will continue to say that I do not believe that an employee should be dismissed for something that has nothing to do with merit. How can you be working for 10 or 20 or 30 years, you get promotion for performance, and your ability to sustain employment comes down to whether or not you take an injection? That, in my mind, is the definition of unjust.”
The decision by Browne to impose the mandatory measures is somewhat of a political gamble, concluded Peter Wickham, the political scientist and regional pollster who asserted that the Antiguan leader had few options and that other Caribbean leaders in similar situations ought to follow suit.
Still, Wickham said the political fallout would be far greater if the economies were allowed to crash due to a lack of firm action by governments.
“I could argue there’s a possibility that he will pay a political price because there’s a possibility that some people will be browned off, but I also know that if he doesn’t act, the political price he would pay if the economy collapses is going to be far greater,” contended Wickham.
“The price that Allen Chastanet [of St Lucia] paid, the price that the governments in Turks and Caicos [and the Bahamas] paid, was as a result of the fact that there was this economic fallout from COVID. So what are you gonna do?”
[Names changed to protect identity]