Vaccine scepticism, or outright denialism, could be the biggest obstacle in getting this nation and others to a place of safety from CoId-19. It could be an even bigger problem than vaccine procurement. Eventually getting all the stock that we need is one thing. Getting jabs into willing arms is another. Beating Covid-19 would be undermined if a significant proportion of the population refuses to take its shots.
Braver leadership is going to be needed on getting to the scientifically acceptable threshold. Every elected MP, every senator, every political leader — including those not represented in the Parliament — must take a Covid-19 vaccine as early and as publicly as possible, to reassure the people they lead. Every leader in business and industry, in church/mosque/mandir. In community leadership.
You’ve shown willingness to lead on procurement, Anthony Sabga III, Group CEO of ANSA McAL, even if it was seen by some as commercially self-serving. You’d be used to the perpetual scepticism of Trinis/Tobagonians. I welcome anyone looking to lead, but you know what else you can do? Give over a chunk of Guardian Media content space to free PSAs promoting vaccination education.
I’d say the same to Dawn Thomas, Group CEO of One Caribbean Media, the parent company of this newspaper. Someone’s still got to pay for the creativity, but you should to provide platform to the T&T Ministry of Health and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) as a national service.
The Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) says T&T media have been using space and airtime for their own Covid-19 public awareness campaigns, and TTPBA has been monitoring it. Space allocation is provided for under telecoms authority (TATT) regulations governing emergency and public interest PSAs. It’s not clear whether that has been invoked.
I can’t tell my seasoned former colleagues — print, online and broadcast editors — how to deal with their news pages. But left up to me, vaccine scepticism is one issue I would not be both-sides-ing. Take the advice of the professionals, and stick with it. Do not give any oxygen to conspiracists. Lives are on the line.
It’ll be an interesting circle to square for the parliamentary opposition. Their job of holding government feet to the fire is vital, and frankly, missteps by the government have made that function a necessary one. Yet, on vaccination messaging, they’re going to have to be on the same side as those officially in charge.
One good sign that the two sides could work together has been the respectful disagreement between the PM Dr Keith Rowley, and Dr Bhoe Tewarie, played out in his thoughtful column in the Sunday Guardian. Reading between the lines, there appears to be a level of mutual respect between the two.
Tewarie is no longer in Parliament, but does that provide a small opening for joint parliamentary action on fighting through the pandemic? I called Tim Gopeesingh to ask him about this, and he told me that though he couldn’t speak for the United National Congress leadership, yes, “I’m sure that our party would be very willing to join with the Government – assist in the education process.”
But he pointed to severe disagreements with the Government since he raised in Parliament in January 2020, the possibility of Covid-19 spread. The fissures with Rowley are deep, and not even a joint meeting with of the two sides in March 2000, once Covid-19 became a reality, has been able to bridge them. The national interest dictates that the two main parties work through their disagreements and deep-rooted suspicions, and jointly manage the messaging phase of the crisis.
I haven’t done a scientific measure of vaccine scepticism in T&T, but I’m worried about how deep-seated it could be. The sharing of crazy conspiracy videos by WhatsApp inbox is now coming from other sources besides the usual suspects (people who live in the venn diagram intersection between Trump supporters and religious zealots), but from people I know well and trust.
“Forwarded many times” is sometimes an indication that you’re about to receive content of dubious veracity, so what are we to make of the one from Texas doctor Steve Hotze? There is considerable doubt about the claims of Dr Hotze. He is regarded by careful fact-checkers as a spreader of falsehoods.
He is to 2021 what Cameroonian doctor Stella Immanuel was to 2020. Immanuel was a heavy promoter of the false claim that Hydroxychloroquine was a cure for Covid-19. Hotze also had form last year, saying in March 2020, in a much-shared Facebook post, that:
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” This is the message about the coronavirus (Covid-19) that the Chicken Little wannabes, the government health care bureaucrats, fake news media, conventional doctors and politicians, are frantically broadcasting to the gullible public”.
He pivoted neatly from denying the seriousness of Covid-19, to saying that vaccines are bad. Well he was wrong about the former. It has killed more than half a million of his countrymen and women. He shouldn’t be taken seriously on vaccines.
There are legitimate questions to answer about vaccines, starting with what a vaccine is. What it isn’t, is a 100 per cent miracle cure for anything. The MoH, CARPHA, international agencies such as Pan American Health Organisation and World Health Organisation have a tonne of work to do on educating a sceptical and quizzical public. They’re nowhere near being acceptably close to bridging the information gap.
Vaccine-scepticism needs all hands on deck.
• Orin Gordon is a media and