This morning was an interesting experience. My dear husband, who falls in the over-75 bracket, received an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine. This is the much-discussed AstraZeneca, which is the first vaccine that Jamaica has received, to date. By the way, Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to receive vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility (which, so far, has been disappointingly low in terms of supplies).
We are on our doctor’s list. Professor Dr. Eldemire-Shearer is a very special person to us. She has been our family doctor since “way back when,” and she also happens to be in charge of the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre at the University of the West Indies (UWI). She is also Patron of the National Council for Senior Citizens (a government entity) and Honorary Chair of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP), a non-governmental organization founded by Jean Lowrie-Chin. When she got vaccinated, she said: “The shot does not hurt, a little burn…no more than any other vaccine, and it’s the start of freedom.”
Indeed! Don’t we long for the freedom to be ourselves, again? Senior citizens want to be free, too – to be ourselves, safely.
CCRP has some 10,000 members over the age of 50 years now, who benefit from an amazing health insurance programme and many discounts from local businesses – as well as great informational meetings, get-togethers, and field trips (although these are on hold for now).
Back to this morning.
So, soon after I had made an appointment for my husband at the Ministry of Health and Wellness website (which, by the way, took five minutes) I had a call from our doctor’s office for an appointment the next day. So we took the earlier date.
The UWI campus was warm and sleepy. Most of the activity seemed to be in a gorgeous bougainvillea bush nearby, where bees and butterflies busied themselves among the flowers in every shade of pink and white. However, as we approached the Centre we realized it was filling up, and fast. I was quite disconcerted at first to find that the entrance to the rather old-fashioned building looked congested, with senior citizens sitting close to each other. Social distancing, anyone?
There were reasons for this, however. As is our wont in Jamaica, people don’t arrive at the time of their appointment. They arrive early – very early – which is why you often see crowds outside public buildings. Some had been waiting for quite a long time already, it appeared. So, it was getting crowded, despite the best efforts of the Centre staff, who were courteous and kind, and trying to settle people down. Dr. Eldemire-Shearer presided over it all with her usual wry good humour, greeting many patients by name.
The main problem, you see, was that the vaccines had not arrived yet – and they arrived late. After 9:30 (some patients had been waiting for at least an hour in the heat by that time) the health workers from the Ministry of Health and Wellness arrived with their boxes of AstraZeneca. I consider it very unfair to staff and patients for them to show up so late – whatever the reason. I didn’t hear any apologies to the patients! These were the elderly; some very frail. Please – show up on time for them next time!
Needless to say, we were happy to see the blue boxes carried in. And when they had organized themselves, the health workers started bustling around; beginning with some public education and counselling. Patients went on to the “jab” (I felt a sudden surge of anxiety for my husband at this point, and hovered around like a mother hen!) and then to the “recovery room,” where the vaccinated ones (vaccinees?) sat for twenty minutes to make sure they did not have any immediate adverse effects. After that, we checked out with another health worker and have an appointment for my husband to have his second shot on June 1 – a little under three months from now.
It bears repeating (although I am sure you already know) that our senior citizens are especially vulnerable, and much more likely to die from COVID-19. There are many of us, according to our Chief Medical Officer, who are asymptomatic and truly unconcerned, because they are not “feeling” it. At this morning’s Ministry press briefing (which you can watch online here), the CMO pointed a finger at the many Jamaican millennials and “Gen Z’s” who are happily carrying on as usual, eating out at restaurants, going out drinking together and traveling in taxi cabs (often sans masks) – and then sharing the virus with more vulnerable family members. These young people, in their 20s and 30s, are doing a good job of spreading the virus, the Ministry notes. Many of the hundreds of new cases per day are in that age bracket.
However, most Jamaicans in these age groups (that is, aged between 20 and 40) do not get ill or seriously ill, and not many of them die. It’s their grandparents, uncles, aunties – even their parents, who are struggling and suffering – and dying. They are filling our hospitals to overflowing – literally. Our health system is buckling under the pressure.
AstraZeneca appears to have caused quite a bit of controversy elsewhere in the world, despite the World Health Organization’s statement on March 17: “At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue.” They put out another statement on March 19. Be that as it may, this is what we have and our seniors, at least, are not “hesitant” about taking the vaccine.
As broadcaster and actress Fae Ellington said in a Ministry public relations piece, “Supporting each other means survival.” The mental health aspects of the pandemic are particularly troubling. I met one or two people at the centre whom I had not seen for years. They were like people from another world, another time that has passed. I felt overjoyed to see them, and then tearful afterwards, just thinking about it – noting how we didn’t immediately recognize each other in our masks.
Jamaica is in a crisis. Yes, let’s use that word. The facts speak for themselves: Yesterday’s figures (March 22) show that the number of active cases is very close to 19,000. A record number of people are in hospital (433), and hospitals are either full or nearly full. We have 40 critically ill patients, and 72 who are moderately so. Six people died yesterday, bringing our total to 542.
Should we be scared? Yes, we should.
Meanwhile, we have a box full of small, shiny, crimson-colored otaheite apples from our tree. We will make juice. We will celebrate life.