Jamaica Economy Panel discusses vaccine hesitancy and the need for strong information campaigns

It has been disconcerting, frustrating and at times quite depressing to discuss vaccine hesitancy in Jamaica and elsewhere on social media. My heart sinks further when I read reports today about protests in St. Vincent (where the 75-year-old Prime Minister was injured during a demonstration, and is apparently not quite recovered) and in Barbados and Antigua, over their governments’ plans to insist on vaccinations, especially in government positions. “This is about freedom – freedom of choice,” said one Barbadian leader of the protest. He suggested that all Caribbean islands are united in their anti-vaccination stance. What road will this lead us all down?

St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves reacts moments after he was struck in the head by an object during COVID-19 related protests, in Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines August 5, 2021 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Asberth News Network via REUTERS

We have not reached that stage in Jamaica (yet?). I hope we will not see mandatory vaccine orders. But there is something people are just not getting. Fully vaccinated people like my husband and I (yes, we are fortunate) are coming up against a brick wall when we talk to the “anti vaxxers” – or rather, those who just don’t know, those in denial, or those who don’t even seem to care very much.

I could shrug my shoulders and say, well – it’s their life. Yes, it is their choice.

But it’s our lives too. It’s everybody’s. That’s the point isn’t it?

Meanwhile, Jamaican doctors are concluding that the “third wave” of COVID is here. The number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations is alarming. I feel this is just the start (but hope I am wrong).

Anyway, the Jamaica Economy Panel has been discussing the matter, and has produced a report. Please find details below…

Information campaigns pivotal to combat misinformation and increase vaccine uptake though more forceful measures could be considered says Jamaican Economy Panel

30 July 2021, KINGSTON – Today, the Jamaican Economy Panel (JEP) publishes the fourth round of its discussions focusing, this month, on vaccine hesitancy.

The World Health Organization has approved six different vaccines for emergency use and the distribution of vaccines is moving forward slowly but certainly. The unequal distribution of vaccines, while mostly going to developed countries, is an important issue. Yet, vaccine hesitancy is halting the uptake of vaccines in all countries.

Internationally comparable data shows that, amongst fifteen countries polled, the Russian Federation, the United States and Australia are among the most vaccine-hesitant. There is an increase over time in the willingness to be vaccinated in other countries, but the vaccination rates are still too low to truly fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The JEP panelists contemplated what they believe drives vaccine hesitancy. Most of the respondents focused on the fact that many people are generally uninformed or unable to estimate the risks associated with COVID-19. Dr. Nadine McCloud, Head of the Economics Department at UWI Mona and co-founder of the JEP, opines that “This pandemic has highlighted that health literacy faces major challenges throughout the world. Suppose individual people cannot correctly reckon their risks associated with COVID-19 and the vaccination. In that case, this can result in greater vaccine hesitancy than what one would expect. Addressing such health literacy challenges requires a structural approach from the basic education level. However, given that this solution is long-term and countries must race against time to reduce vaccine hesitancy and rein in this pandemic, governments should also employ widespread use of orthodox and unorthodox communication tools to increase health literacy.”

A vaccination session at Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre at the University of the West Indies, Mona, on August 3. (Photo: Ministry of Health and Wellness)

The JEP panelists also voiced their views on several policies applied in different countries to address vaccine hesitancy. The importance of information campaigns for low-information households is almost universally endorsed. Half of the respondents also recognize that distinguishing public-health restrictions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated can play a key role. Another associated matter is that, whichever policy governments apply, people must be aware of the advantages of vaccination (beyond protection from disease), such as reduced quarantine upon entering the country.

Finally, although very few respondents champion making vaccination compulsory in all circumstances, they were asked about which possible exceptions they could recognize. Two specific groups stand out: healthcare workers and teachers (as long as there are no approved vaccines for children). A large majority of respondents supports making vaccines mandatory for those groups, despite the ethical conundrum associated with doing so.

Responding to the survey results, Dr. Garry Conille, United Nations Resident Coordinator, shared that “Vaccine hesitancy is a real challenge in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. It requires a careful balance of individual rights and the rights of the overall population to be protected. Making vaccination mandatory for everyone is a major rights infringement, but it makes sense to provide the right incentives to encourage individuals to get vaccinated. I believe that distinguishing the public-health requirements between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated would make sense, but only when a substantial portion of the population has had the opportunity to get vaccinated.”

The Jamaican Economy Panel is part of a partnership between the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO) and the Department of Economics at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona. The JEP brings together a select group of economic and public sector experts to address monthly socio-economic questions. These questions help to highlight relevant economic issues and the collective expertise of the panelists.

The full results of this month’s discussion are available here.

Dr. Garry Conille, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kingston.

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