Corporate Fear Drives Caribbean Vaccine COVID-19 Mandates

The private sector and some government agencies have demanded that staff vaccinate, especially in the tourism industry that drives many regional economies. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

By Zadie Neufville (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – When face-to-face Cabinet meetings resumed in Jamaica following more than a year of virtual meetings due to COVID-19, Ministers lined up to have their immunisation cards inspected.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the Government “has to lead the country towards normality”.

“The way to do it is for every Jamaican to comply with the infection, prevention and control measures that have been established, which will eventually be relaxed the higher the level of vaccination,” he said after the October 12 meeting.

In the current atmosphere, outbreaks, no-movement days that shut down commerce and vaccine hesitancy send ripples through the economy. So, while Jamaica has no national vaccine mandate, private sector companies and some government agencies are already demanding that staff vaccinate.

In addition to several vaccination drives that target employees, Jamaica Private Sector Organisation joined the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association to put their support solidly behind a campaign for a national mandate.

The groups say that with the low vaccination rates almost two years into the pandemic, Jamaica is being left behind in achieving population immunity, putting the country’s recovery at risk. The groups contend that the social and economic impact will be devastating, and “the ripple effects will continue for years to come”. But even with growing support for a mandate, opposition leader Mark Golding opposes one. Only about 17 percent of the Jamaican population is vaccinated.

Across the region, governments have already implemented mandates. In Guyana, nationals who want to enter any public buildings, including banks, restaurants, supermarkets and schools, must show proof of vaccination. In the twin-island state of Antigua Barbuda, opposition legislators accused House Speaker Sir Gerald Watt of acting beyond his powers after he prevented them from participating in the sitting of the Senate because they did not show proof of vaccination.

With each outbreak, concern for the tourism industry that drives many regional economies grows. Many countries now have vaccination policies for incoming adult travellers. These include Anguilla, Grenada, St. Barts, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, and the Cayman Islands.

And even as governments ponder mandates, they are also bracing for civil unrest and legal challenges from workers. In a recent opinion, the Jamaican Bar Association said nothing was preventing the Government or employers from implementing mandates. The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States outlined its position in a 16-page document titled: “The Legal Dimensions of Mandatory/Compulsory Requirements for COVID-19 Vaccinations, August 2021”.

According to the report, that countries could legally pursue mandatory vaccination laws.
“Having demonstrated … that mandatory vaccination is constitutionally appropriate given the leeway granted in favour of public health imperatives, it is submitted that employers could justify a requirement in a pandemic context, at minimum where the workplace is a high-risk environment, such as health-care, or essential services, or for workers more at risk at the workplace, such as frontline workers interacting with the public,” the document said.

But while public health legislation specifically addresses restrictions in times of pandemic, those who oppose mandates argue that they are a breach of human rights.

President of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, Helene Davis-Whyte, is expecting a national mandate if efforts to boost vaccination numbers fail. She argued for a comprehensive public awareness programme with consultations before such a step is taken and cautioned that a “draconian approach” could discourage some people.

“We are not necessarily opposed, but what we are saying is that you have to do more work because we don’t think that enough work has been done,” she told journalists recently.

And so, armed with their individual legal opinions, governments have been implementing the rules they say will protect their countries. By October 2021, at least seven governments across the region had instituted COVID-19 mandates for government workers.

In August, in Guyana, police were called to evict staff members in the education ministry’s head office who had entered the building without proof of vaccination. Earlier that month, there were mass protests in St. Vincent and Barbados. And in July, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was hit on the head and injured by an angry protestor during anti-mandate demonstrations in St Vincent.

Barbados, like Jamaica, has not officially backed a vaccine mandate, but Holness acknowledges he may have to make the decision soon. But even with no national mandate in Jamaica increasingly, civil servants find they must be vaccinated to work.

The Ministry of Tourism has raced ahead to vaccinate the 170,000 people who work in the sector. Already workers who come in contact with cruise ship visitors must be fully inoculated.

And as the country eyes a return to full-time school, it’s the turn of teachers and school staff. Medical workers have already been issued a mandate. In the private sector, more than 80 per cent of staff are vaccinated.

In the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, where several companies became hotspots during the height of the first wave, vaccination is compulsory. In Jamaica, COVID-19 restrictions and 14-days of lockdown cost the sector US$42 million (J$5.88 billion) in revenue.

But it is in the region’s tourism industry that mandates have become the norm. Hoteliers and other service providers seek to prevent lawsuits and shutdowns by demanding that staff be fully vaccinated. In the Bahamas, workers and visitors must be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated visitors face a 14-day quarantine. Jamaica is aiming for a 100 per cent vaccinated workforce.

A growing number of countries have instituted vaccination policies for incoming adult travellers. These include Anguilla, Grenada, St. Barts, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, and the Cayman Islands.

Meanwhile, the private sector’s desire for a return to normalcy and increased economic activity could push many toward a vaccine faster than any government mandate could.

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