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At bottom the confrontation over vaccination is less about the virus than about a broader lack of trust and fairness. Both the mini-bus sector, nurses and teachers’ opposition to vaccination is influenced by unresolved non-COVID 19 grievances, without this being explicitly acknowledged.
While the Ministry of Health has done well compared to other countries with respect to securing supplies of vaccines and also enabling a degree of choice – albeit limited – – there are major leadership issues and a strategy with respect to the nurses, in particular, that smack of clumsiness. Complaints received by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) of unvaccinated persons denied access to treatment for non-COVID issues include, for example, a person suffering from burns in a domestic accident. Such incidents simply deepen rather than weaken the sense of grievance.
Leaders of the mini-bus drivers and teachers have no doubt noted the alacrity with which the Government has waived G$4.8bn of customs duties to be paid by the business community as a result of COVID-induced shipping increases. By contrast the comparable loss of income to mini-bus owners, whose income has been impacted by COVID 19 distancing and sanitizing rules, are not offered any special treatment. Moreover, as the GHRA has pointed out previously, the extractive sectors, deemed an essential service, has been specifically exempted from any COVID 19 regulations from the start of the pandemic.
For the above reasons, COVID 19 vaccination has now joined the growing catalogue of issues used to sustain the political polarization of the country with little regard for the deadly consequences. Leadership of the anti-vaxxers dogmatically defend their rank and file ‘right to choose’, while Government threatens strong-arm inconsistent tactics to enforce vaccination. Neither side is disposed to respect any validity in the opposing position, preferring ‘in principle arguments’ about ‘rights’ rather than practical solutions.
The COVID 19 Task Force is largely missing in action while the official COVID 19 communications strategy is feeble.
Rather than engage with emerging issues, the daily repetition of numbers generates no more sense of urgency than the daily weather forecast. This approach cannot rescue or insulate the COVID 19 response from the semi-permanent political skirmishes that pass for politics in Guyana. Inconsistent application of regulations on numbers at weddings, funerals, fetes, etcetera adds to resentment from those who obey the rules. Mask-wearing and distancing are treated too often as suggestions rather than rules.
The COVID Task Force must be seen to be above the politically-driven polarization and provide real leadership, which involves showing some empathy and common-sense for the non-vaxxer position rather than simply ignoring it. Communications strategies of both Government and trade unions must address the hesitancy of anti-vaxxers by prioritizing the following messages:
· All approved vaccines are highly effective against severe disease and death from COVID-19.
· The unvaccinated are the ones who are dying not the vaccinated.
· Rebut false and outdated information.
· Vaccine availability.
· Reduce hesitancy in relation to less preferred vaccines.
· A clearer understanding of what the right to choose means.
Rebuttal of wrong and outdated information about vaccine safety and effectiveness is crucial since anti-vaxxers still regurgitate the distortion and ridicule instilled by right-wing politicians from earlier days.
A more current distortion relates to the widely misused justification of the anti-vax position by reference to the freedom to choose. The decision to choose to be vaccinated is too readily equated with daily choices such as where an individual chooses to shop, or which TV programme to watch, decisions which are almost entirely without repercussion for other people. The rights of other people, however, are a well-established legal limitation on an individual’s right to choose. An individual’s right to drive at a fast speed, for example, is limited by the safety of other people and, in that case, is legally enforced.
Similarly, if the Government believes the case for mandatory action against the unvaccinated is sufficiently established, such action must fully explained and applied impartially and fairly.
Guyana Human Rights Association