Get Jamaica the green lightSunday, September 26, 2021
“IF the vaccine I got isn't recognised, what does that mean? Will I have to get a booster shot to travel? Which vaccines qualify?”
Earlier this week news broke that the United Kingdom did not recognise the COVID-19 vaccine code for Jamaica, resulting in Jamaicans who are fully immunised against COVID-19 having to identify as being unvaccinated upon arrival in that country. In other words: No COVID-19 vaccine administered in Jamaica is currently allowed in the UK.
This was shocking news since many Jamaicans have been vaccinated with the 300,000 doses of UK-developed AstraZeneca and other vaccine supplies from India through the World Health Organization's (WHO) COVAX (COVID-19 Global Access) facility.
This news further complicated matters, especially against the background of the 'amber' categorisation thrust upon us in August by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). This categorisation is the traffic light designation system alerting UK citizens where they should or should not travel. Based on Jamaica's low vaccination and high positivity COVID-19 rates we were designated with amber, which simply means “don't travel there if you don't have to”, in addition to some other mandatory COVID-19 testing and quarantining if you do ( www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice).
On the other hand, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Turks and Caicos, and Montserrat are on the UK's 'green list'. Travellers entering England from these countries do not have to quarantine once they are fully vaccinated with the approved vaccines. These approved vaccines include: Indian-manufactured Oxford/AstraZeneca Covishield, the AstraZeneca Vaxzevria, and Moderna Takeda.
From October 4, 2021, the existing traffic light system of red, amber and green countries, based on levels of COVID-19 risk, will be abandoned and replaced with only one red list. Seventeen additional countries and territories have already been given vaccine clearance codes, including some Caribbean countries. Why isn't Jamaica on this list?
How is it that our Government did not utilise all available diplomatic channels, including the WHO and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), to ensure that Jamaica's vaccination programme, including the administration of the AstraZeneca and other COVID-19 vaccines, was approved with appropriate recognition codes issued?
This is disturbing and deeply concerning, but not entirely surprising.
Recall earlier this year Caricom heads met and they noted the COVAX facility had only provided up to 20 per cent of the vaccine needs for member states. They agreed that these supplies were too limited to achieve the desired goal of regional herd immunity. Recognising this dilemma, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley immediately wrote to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi soliciting urgent assistance with the Indian-manufactured Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for immunisation coverage for the Bajan people. India dispatched two consignments of vaccines to Barbados and Dominica.
However, the Jamaican Government waited, confining our pursuits on the reliance of goodwill from other nations. As a result, we acted late, and we were one of the last countries in the region to receive vaccines. The Government, therefore, has an overriding and urgent obligation to ensure that Jamaica receives the requisite vaccine status through our expert diplomatic negotiators.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith announced her engagement of Caricom and the UK Government last week to action the 'green light' for Jamaica. She emphasised, however, that any success would be dependent on necessary data from the Ministry of Health.
Meanwhile, Jamaica's Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie has called for the intervention of PAHO and the WHO to “intervene to ensure that essential medicines and health technologies that have gone through the rigours of approval are recognised and accepted globally”.
The geopolitical vaccine divide
Recently, US President Joe Biden convened a virtual COVID-19 summit of world leaders as a part of the UN General Assembly. His message: “Ending the pandemic and building back better.” The plan will see the US buying 500 million COVID-19 vaccines to share with poorer countries.
Earlier in June the International Monetary Fund (IMF) proposed to create a US$50-billion vaccine programme for poor countries to help eliminate vaccine inequity, reduce infections and loss of lives, accelerate the economic recovery, and generate some US$9 trillion in additional global output by 2025.
“All this is too little, too late,” is the response of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as the discussion of vaccine inequality laid bare at the ongoing United Nations General Assembly in New York. Of the 5.7 billion doses that have been administered globally, only 2 per cent of those have been administered in Africa.
We therefore have a serious global problem. On the one hand, many people in the developing world have still not been vaccinated. And, on the other, those who have are being denied entry into the developed world based on ineligibility of their vaccines.
India has stridently made its position known: “Here is a vaccine, Covishield, which is a licensed product of a UK company, manufactured in India, of which we have supplied five million doses to the UK at the request of the Government of the UK… We understand that this has been used in the National Health System and, therefore, non-recognition of Covishield is a discriminatory policy,” indicated Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
In February, Minister of Health Christopher Tufton assured the Jamaican public that only COVID-19 vaccines approved by the WHO would be used in Jamaica.
“Our selection of a vaccine has to follow a protocol. We will not embrace or endorse any vaccine that falls outside a protocol of going through the expert assessment that the WHO traditionally subjects a vaccine to before it is certified as safe,” he said.
The novel coronavirus surfaced late 2019. We are on the eve of the second anniversary of the pandemic and our Jamaican reality is a low vaccination rate, nightly curfews, and no-movement days. The 'Chinese telephone', 'stop and go', 'wait and see', 'trial and error' management strategies we have been using to control the virus have, no doubt, compromised the local and global movement of our citizens.
Our Caribbean and Latin American counterparts are outperforming us in vaccinating their populations. Jamaica is behind, at 4.9 per cent, while the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago are at 43.38 per cent and 28.61 per cent, respectively (See Table I from In Focus, 'Latin America and the Caribbean: Impact of COVID-19', US Congressional Research Service, September 3, 2021).
At this rate, what will 2022 look like for Jamaica in a world hurtling head-on into vaccine segregation and discrimination?
Jamaica must act now to coordinate our local efforts, in urgent tandem with all available resources, to clear up any outstanding issues required for the validation and registration of our current national vaccine protocols with the UK Government in the shortest possible time. This is critical, especially since our major trading partner, the United States, has also signalled its own vaccine protocols for its borders to take effect in November.
It's time for bold, proactive, and strident Jamaica moves.
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