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Caribbean countries have seen protests in response to the COVID-19 vacancies. Tempers are flaring between the vaccinated and unvaccinated presenting a combustible environment. Defusing this, though there exists no magic bullet, is not impossible if the sources of the confusion and hesitancy could be acknowledged and attended to.
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who sought to walk through a protest against mandatory vaccination, was injured by a stone to his head allegedly thrown by one of the protestors. People are on the streets in Antigua, British Virgin Islands, United States, and around the world protesting taking the vaccine, mandatory vaccination, observing COVID-19 protocols, and almost everything associated with the virus. Governments have been tested by the pandemic, citizens’ reactions, and the havoc the virus has inflicted on economies and lives.
But the stability and development of every society, though ultimately the responsibility of the government, cannot ignore the role citizens could play in the process. Admittedly, some of the protests may be informed by conspiracy theories, absence of accurate knowledge about the effectiveness and efficacy of any or all of the vaccines, fear, hesitancy or whatever. It would be to society’s peril to ignore these and insist on mandating vaccine without attending to the multiple factors at play, and likely resistance.
Another unfortunate scenario is the pandemic has not been devoid of tribal/divisive politics. Some politicians have denied the existence or seriousness of the virus for political mileage and/or to get elected. In societies where this happened when these politicians have been elected they are now finding it difficult to gain credibility on matters of such nature. Another factor hindering proper management is the inconsistencies in enforcement across the society, and what some have argued is disregard for science, law and universally acceptable behaviours.
The above would not generate confidence or create different responses. They only reinforce held beliefs, stir the pot of conflict, and add more confusion to society which could adversely impact success. This is where Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, in the past week attracted attention for her government’s shift in policy. At a press conference two Saturdays ago she made clear the Government of Barbados has agreed there should not mandate vaccine, and that the government’s responsibility is to “keep [the] country safe [and] equally to keep the country united, [because] that is who [Barbadians] are.”
Mottley said she has listened to the trade union and private sector, and will meet again with the Social Partners on 30th August to have further discussions as “one.” And responding to public clamouring, she announced there will be adjustment to some “existing protocols.” It was also reiterated the Barbadian Government would not be asking citizens to pay for covid test unless they were travelling. In that press conference Mottley stated awareness that some will take the vaccine, some will not, and others would not be able to because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Whilst making known she believes the vaccine should be taken because it would save lives, it was stated the government would respect those who won’t or can’t take the vaccine. It is her opinion, however, healthcare workers should be vaccinated based on the science, but she will seek to reach out to the unvaccinated. To this end, Mottley committed to visit every health institution, personally listen to the unvaccinated to understand their reason(s) and try to influence them. However if they do not want to be vaccinated she will respect their decision.
Evidently, Prime Minister Mottley has not only heard but is responding to the rumblings. By saying to Barbadians she “hear[s]” them, she has signalled an intent to reset the relationship between the people and their government. It is a process where the government and governed will be talking to each other and not talking past each other. This is the sanest and best approach in conflict management and maintaining a cohesive unit, be it a family, workplace or society. Guyana could be better served taking a lesson for Barbados.