By A. T. Freeman
Recently, Gaston Brown, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda declared that if Antiguans didn’t voluntarily get vaccinated in sufficient numbers, his government would make Covid 19 vaccination mandatory.
Speaking on a local radio station, Brown stated, “This type of hesitancy and reluctance to get vaccinated is just totally unacceptable. I mean we have been trying to avoid introducing any mandatory requirements for vaccinations, but I want to signal here, if we have to do it we will do so. It is going to be an inescapable fact that our people have no choice but to get vaccinated, they either do so voluntarily to protect lives and livelihoods or be forced to do so”. Although Brown makes mention of the necessity of vaccination for the purpose of saving lives, his wider comments make it clear that this is not his primary concern. He continued, “We are struggling on a monthly basis to meet salaries and wages and you are telling me that Antigua and Barbuda as one of the hardest-hit countries, one of the most vulnerable, you are telling me we have the luxury of not getting vaccinated……I said, the economic and social scars … are getting deeper and deeper day by day. How our hotel workers are going to get back to work if we cannot reopen the country’s economy safely and where will we get money to survive? We do not have any stimulus to give them, we just don’t have the money”.
The threats from Brown illustrate in many ways the bankruptcy of the political arrangements not only in Antigua but across the wider Caribbean, where there is increasing discussion about making Covid 19 vaccination mandatory either by employers or governments. In this narrative, it’s the people who are at fault. They are blamed for irresponsibility in behaving in ways that cause the spread of the virus or in refusing to be vaccinated. Governments and the ruling elites they represent present themselves as the victims of the current situation but the reality is quite different.
The social and economic devastation caused by the collapse of the tourism industry underlines the failure to address the region’s economic and social vulnerability inherited from the period of slavery and colonialism. Instead of developing the region’s economy in the direction of self-reliance, the decision was taken to continue the old economic and social arrangements while transitioning from mono-crop agricultural economies to either tourism based or oil extraction based ones. Responsibility for this course of action lies squarely with the various political parties that have governed the region since independence and can’t be laid at the door of the people, who have continuously spoken out about the recklessness of that direction of travel. It is worth noting that Cuba, with a population of 11 million, has sent doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to many countries across the region and developed its own vaccines, while the CARICOM member states with a population of over 13 million have had to beg for everything from PCR tests to vaccines.
In addition, people’s lived experience over many years has taught them that governments across the region are indifferent to their health care needs. Apart from Cuba, nowhere in the region is health care considered to be a fundamental human right and an area of priority spending for governments. On the contrary, access to health care is a commodity to be bought and sold like any other, while those who simply can’t afford to pay are catered for by a rudimentary and under-resourced public health system. As a result, people routinely die because they are unable to afford expensive treatments and it’s common to find individuals engaging in fund raising activities to pay for treatments they require. To make matters worse, it is a common practice among the rich, including the ruling politicians, to immediately seek medical attention in either the USA or Europe when they or their families fall ill.
This is the context in which people’s reluctance to take the Covid 19 vaccines needs to be understood. Threatening them with mandatory vaccination in order to speed up the relaunching of the tourism industry is a gross violation of their human rights and a continuation of the anti-people course that regional governments have been on for a long time.