By A. T. Freeman
On 27 July, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados announced that the government would embark on a process of “national consultation” consisting of 4 public meetings conducted simultaneously face to face and online on the issues of mandatory Covid vaccination and testing. Ms Mottley further announced that the Attorney General would have prepared “a legal opinion looking at both civil and criminal liability with respect to aspects of mandatory vaccinations and mandatory testing”. These announcements followed a meeting on these issues of the Social Partnership, which brings together the government, the employers and the unions.
This takes place against a backdrop in the Caribbean of Covid vaccination rates of around 30% and increasingly strident demands from employers, their organisations and external forces for governments across the region to adopt more coercive policies to force employees to be vaccinated. These coercive policies include dismissing workers who refuse to be vaccinated or making them take frequent PCR tests at their own expense. For example, the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), which represents the hoteliers and associated businesses, has a declared position of wanting unvaccinated workers to be subjected to weekly PCR tests at their own expense. Since the tests cost BD$ 100 each and some workers in this sector earn as a little as BD$350 per week, it is clear that this is designed as a coercive measure. The Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA), which is the main employers’ organisation, has also added its voice to the demand for a coercive approach to Covid vaccination. In addition to these official pronouncements, it is reported that individual employers have already started threatening workers with a loss of their livelihood or the unbearable financial burden of frequent PCR tests if they refuse to be vaccinated.
Central to the arguments of the employers is that mass vaccination is a requirement for economic recovery, particularly of the tourism dependent economies, such as Barbados, which have been devastated by the Covid 19 crisis. BPSA chairman, Edward Clarke, set out this position clearly at the first of the national consultation meetings when he declared that the country’s economy is at risk of irreparable harm if COVID-19 vaccination rates do not significantly rise.
However, the employers’ push for a more coercive vaccine policy has met very strong opposition from among workers and the general population. Dennis De Peiza, General Secretary of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) speaking at the first of the consultation meetings declared that vaccine mandates are a “no-go” workers’ rights issue. Opposition Senator, Caswell Franklyn, and leader of the Unity Trade Union has also been an outspoken critic of any policy of coercive vaccination, who has has pointed out that, given recent research highlighting similar viral loads for the delta variant in vaccinated and unvaccinated Covid positive individuals, any testing policy mandated in workplaces should apply equally to both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
Such broad opposition to the policy of coercive Covid vaccination was further illustrated by a huge protest of some 2000 people which took place on 7 August in the capital, Bridgetown. The march which was organised by the Barbados Concerned Citizens Against Mandated and Coerced COVID Vaccination openly opposes any effort to implement a mandatory vaccination policy in the country.
Although the national consultation meetings have been presented by the government as an opportunity to hear what Bajans think on the issues, they are not always conducted in a way that would make this possible.
The second of these meetings was a case in point. Addressed by the Acting Prime Minister, Acting Attorney General, the Chief Medical Officer, the President of the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners and the Head of the Covid 19 Isolation Facilities, the meeting was dominated by those speaking from the panel. These speakers were given ample time to present their views while participants in the face to face audience and online were hurried to complete their contributions. In addition, legitimate questions raised by participants remained unanswered. For example, one young participant, pointing out the difficult situation of low paid workers who are faced with coercion to be vaccinated, asked who would take responsibility for any injuries arising from the use of the vaccine. Initially, the Acting Attorney General responded that this responsibility would fall on the vaccine manufacturer but later corrected himself, since the manufacturers insist on legal indemnity against any claims for vaccine induced injury. However, the young man’s question as to whether the government or the employers would accept liability in the conditions of a coercive vaccination policy remained unanswered.
Further questions with regard to the transparency of the data published on Covid on the island, including the numbers of individuals who have recovered from Covid infection and the number who have needed hospital treatment while infected also remained unanswered. The president of BAMP helpfully clarified for the audience the difference between sterilising and non-sterilising vaccines but then went on to advise people to get vaccinated for Covid 19 because vaccines had played a part in protecting the health of people in Barbados in the past. However, she presented no evidence of the use of non-sterilising vaccines, like the Covid vaccines, in Barbados previously and their role in protecting health. These features of the event created the impression that, although billed as an opportunity to hear what Bajans think on these issues, its real aim was to persuade them to be vaccinated.
The current push for a coercive vaccine policy raises many key issues for the people of Barbados and the wider region. First, it is unbelievable that this region which has a long and ugly history of working people not even having autonomy over their bodies since they were considered someone else’s property, is now seeing this spectre raise its head again in the 21st century. Secondly, the inability of the region to conduct its own research into the local impact of Covid and to use this to develop region appropriate policies to respond to it demonstrate just how little has been achieved during the period of independence. Thirdly, the fact that across the region, the existing health care systems are unfit for purpose and therefore struggle to respond to the Covid crisis is further evidence of the failure of the current political arrangements. As some workers point out, Covid vaccines are free but medication for diabetes and high blood pressure which are prevalent across the region are very expensive.
The opposition to the coercive Covid vaccine policy is just. There is no reason why a Covid containment policy could not respect workers’ rights to choose to be vaccinated or not. Given that employers carry primary responsibility for maintaining a healthy and safe working environment, it follows that the cost for any regular PCR testing that they deem necessary for maintaining such an environment should be borne by them. These are demands that all working people should unite around, whether they choose to be vaccinated or not.