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The Government on Wednesday started its first inoculation of the COVID-19 vaccine, compliments of the Government of Barbados. This is good news and consistent with World Health Organisation Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ advice that the best way to protect the rest of [a country’s] own population is to share vaccines so other countries can do the same.” Ghebreyesus went further to caution that “Unless we suppress the virus everywhere, we could end up back at square one.”
Persons are breathing a sigh of relief that help is on the way. In rolling out the vaccine truthful information is critical to building confidence. Guyanese would want to be assured that for the two-dose vaccine both doses will be available and from the same maker. It is important to know for this type of vaccine whether the second dose will be administered within the stipulated period. Apart from stating the first dose will go to “our frontline workers” the government has not made public a national plan how this will be implemented across Guyana to allay fears of favouritism, discrimination and bias. These logistical issues need to be mapped and communicated.
There is also concern about the storage of the vaccine at the stipulated temperature given Guyana’s electricity woes and non-electrification in the outlying areas. Guyanese need to be assured the government will ensure strict temperature compliance to guarantee the potency of the vaccine. They did promise that cold chain infrastructure is being installed for proper storage but it needs to be said whether this was done and tested to ensure its efficiency.
The fear about taking the vaccine is not unique to Guyana but a global phenomenon. Skepticism is facilitated by conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccinator activists , distortions, those suspicious of the government, and legitimate concerns about the speed at which the vaccines were produced. Some willing to take the vaccine are concerned about possible side effects or any associated health risks.
There is also a perception that the vaccine prevents persons from being infected with the virus and the days for wearing a mask, social distancing and hand washing may be over. It cannot be overemphasized, scientists have advised otherwise and warn that people will still have to obey COVID-19 guidelines. The vaccine is not a cure for the virus but is supposed to contain spread and minimise symptoms associated with the virus if contracted. People can still get infected even after taking the vaccine based on its effectiveness rate. For example, the Pfizer vaccine has 52% efficacy after the first dose and 95% after the second dose.
The above concerns, real or perceived, cannot be ignored. And though the media is being solicited by the Minister of Health to assist in spreading the news about the vaccine, including debunking myths, the government should partner with the media to ensure the information is accurate, by initiating the information flow. Government has to demonstrate tolerance and patience with the public by truthfully and honestly answering questions and allaying fears.
It is simply not good enough to recognise the aforesaid and not be proactive or leave it up to persons to decide whether they should be vaccinated. Where in other societies central and federal governments value the importance of working with other tiers of government and leaders in various communities, including their political rivals, this government has taken a do-it-alone approach.
This is Guyana’s first mass-based vaccination exercise and unlike the school vaccination/immunization programme. To achieve the greatest impact it must be done effectively and efficiently. At the most basic, communicable disease, particularly given the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread and infectious rate, the input of all is needed. The government continues to ignore leaders and organisations who are the opinion shapers of their supporters and can influence their response to the virus and vaccination. If the government is serious in its ambition to reach herd immunity or have all Guyanese vaccinated they cannot ignore the fundamentals.