INSIGHT: To conquer COVID, we must tackle inequality over vaccines

By Malcolm Strachan

THE day when vaccinations will begin in The Bahamas is getting closer.

As we look around the world, of course, the pace of vaccinations is uneven – to say the least. While the US is aiming to have enough vaccinations for 300 million Americans by the end of July, other countries – ourselves included – have not had a single dose yet.

Just last week, the UN Secretary General, António Gutteres, pictured right, called out the richest nations of the world. He pointed out that “Just ten countries have administered 75 percent of all COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose”.

The problem is of course that to defeat COVID-19 at all, we need to defeat it everywhere. To that end, the UN has set up a group to ensure all countries have access to vaccines “regardless of their wealth”.

We need only look to the problems being experienced by our southern neighbour, Haiti, where political unrest has rocked the country for so long there seems no path to stable government – and how on Earth can a focused vaccination problem go ahead when there are stories of plots against the president, of police attacking journalists and more?

Last week, The Bahamas banned commercial travel from Haiti – said to be because the country is entering its Carnival season – but we know with the amount of travel, authorised or illicit, from Haiti to The Bahamas that even once we have vaccinations for every resident here, the virus won’t stop circulating without a vaccination programme there.

It may not seem that we can do much about the UN plan – but we can. One part of the UN’s call was to make sure that all people are vaccinated, regardless of their status.

The executive director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said that it was important for everyone to be vaccinated – for us that includes people living in shanty towns or who might not have the right paperwork.

Elsewhere, there are other signs that our country is making the right steps towards vaccination. In the past week, there has been confirmation of steps being taken to protect the vaccine in case of power cuts, for example. Heaven help us if we finally get the vaccine and it gets destroyed by a BPL engine failure at an inopportune moment. Rules were also established for compensation in the event of injury after taking the vaccine – a necessary set of rules that will hopefully never be needed in practice.

As we prepare, we would be wise to look to other nations to see how they have been distributing the vaccine. There have been stories in the US, for example, of people queuing for hours – sometimes even having to come back another day after doing so – and we really ought to ensure our system for administering vaccines is better than that.

By now, we ought to have identified who will be getting our vaccines first – with healthcare workers at the front of the line. That should be made public as soon as it is finalised, so everyone can know when they might expect to receive the vaccine.

That should include a timetable for the Family Islands once the vaccine is received, with the elderly and most vulnerable on the Family Islands getting priority, especially on islands with more limited healthcare facilities. Prevent the infections rather than have people fighting them without immediate access to the required care.

We may be late to the party when it comes to getting the vaccinations themselves, but that gives us the chance to learn from others – copying the good and avoiding the bad.

Finally, one of those inequalities may well work in our favour. The United States looks finally to be ahead of the game after seemingly ignoring the virus as it ran rampant across the country. The prospect of every American being vaccinated by the summer gives us a goal to aim for in opening our doors to tourists again, and reinvigorating the economy once more.

It won’t be the end of the rocky economic road – the closure of the Melia hotel for two years shows that – but it will help us get back on our feet at last.

The more we can do to get on with vaccinations ourselves – and keep cases down to a minimum in the meantime – the better we’ll be prepared for when that day comes. The clock is ticking – and the day those vaccines arrive in The Bahamas and start to be administered will be a landmark moment for our country. It cannot arrive soon enough.