Government has declared it has taken no decision on making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory in Barbados, even as a private sector leader warned that if vaccination does not pick up significantly, this country’s economy is at risk of suffering irreparable harm.
Speaking in the first of several town hall meetings on vaccinations and testing protocols on Monday evening, Acting Attorney General Wilfred Abrahams said that forced vaccinations were neither plan nor policy for the Mottley administration.
But two leading spokesmen for business and labour at the forum exposed a growing rift between employers and workers over vaccine mandates.
The head of the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA) Edward Clarke declared that a largely unvaccinated nation is unsustainable while the leader of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) Dennis De Peiza framed vaccine mandates as a “no-go” workers’ rights issue.
Abrahams told the town hall meeting that Government will continue to respect and preserve the rights of citizens, with no mandatory policy position currently being made with respect to vaccinations.
He said: “There has not been a decision – I can say now on behalf of all the ministers here, and the Acting Prime Minister [Santia Bradshaw] will back me up – Government does not have a policy position as it stands now in respect of mandatory vaccination of anybody. That is what we are doing here through these meetings; we want to hear from you what your suggestions are.”
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In responding to questions from the public about mandatory vaccines being introduced by Government in the near future, Abrahams pushed back on the notion, saying that the current series of town halls were created for the sole purpose of Government receiving feedback from citizens on their stance on the subject, with the present administration planning to shape future policy from this public discourse.
He said Government wanted to have a conversation with citizens on the matter.
“What we are trying to do here now is to hear from everyone,” said Abrahams. “Hearing not only the questions but also suggestions, because at the end of the day, we have to proceed in a direction or in a series of related directions. What that looks like, we are trying to put that together based on the feedback from the persons who attend these town hall meetings and who weigh in virtually.
“At the end of the day, all those opinions must contend. The perfect situation would be that coming out of this, we are all on the same page, but we are unlikely to be all on the same page. What we have to look for is a compromise position that accommodates as many persons as possible,” he added.
The Acting Attorney General said successive Barbadian governments have respected the rights of the individual and the rights of society.
“No one is going to hold you down and stick a needle into your arm,” he said. “I have been hearing that on the street that people are going to be physically forced to take a vaccine, that there will be criminal charges if they do not do it.
“No one can hold you down and stick a needle in your arm. You have rights with respect to your body but, equally, other persons have rights with respect to theirs, and business owners have rights with respect to theirs as well.”
But Clarke and De Peiza sparred over requiring workers to take the COVID-19 jab.
With the vaccination rate hovering around 30 per cent, Clarke said the economy is at the risk of irreparable harm if COVID-19 vaccination rates do not significantly rise.
The BPSA chairman said the need to welcome tourists back to the island is paramount for the country’s survival, not only for foreign exchange to once again return to our shores in high numbers, but for the thousands who have gone without jobs for well over a year.
He declared: “In all reality, Barbados lives in a bubble… we live in an unsustainable bubble. Our country was dying, economy decimated, 95 per cent of hotel and tourism business decimated, we have seen the impact and what it has done to unemployment in Barbados…. 40,000 people unemployed in Barbados – it is not sustainable, in our opinion if we are going to survive this COVID, if the economy is going to survive, our employees are going to get back jobs and this country can continue to grow and develop in a sustainable fashion, we have to welcome back visitors to our island.”
Clarke insisted that with tourism, entertainment and other industries in a state of limbo, the situation will not be sustainable for much longer if vaccination rates do not pick up significantly.
“Barbados is a very small island, we live on a rock here with limited resources,” he said. “We have the Harrison’s Point [Isolation] Facility where the Government did a remarkable job to put in place at very short notice. We have the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, limited resources, which should be utilized for other major attention in Barbados. If we need to open our borders fully, which we have done, if Barbados is going to coming out of this, we need to welcome back tourism.
“There is a big risk, there is a risk yes…. It is my belief as an individual person, and it’s the private sector’s belief, that that means that people that are vaccinated present less of a risk to this country’s medical resources. It presents less risk to our businesses in Barbados, less risk to unemployment growing in Barbados, and it presents less of a risk to decimating this country and the growth prospects that this country will ever have going forward. That is why we in the private sector believe that vaccines should be put in place, especially for those people on the frontline.”
Clarke maintained that businesses may face liability problems in the face of low vaccination rates, given the need for employers to maintain a healthy environment for not only workers but for clients as well.
In response, De Peiza stressed that though his association fully supported vaccinations against the deadly infection, any talk about mandatory vaccinations was a no-no for him, with CTUSAB declaring the move a grave error.
“We believe that arbitrary changes to the conditions of service of an employee, terms of conditions work, and even to the collective bargaining agreement, can only be construed as being provocative and discriminatory,” the CTUSAB general secretary said.
“As a matter of fact, it is absurd and insulting that any employer should undertake to trade-off really the freedom of choice from the individual for 30 pieces of silver. I think this is an act which we can say borders on bribery and is offensive.” (SB)