On May 5, the governor and premier of Montserrat — a British overseas territory with about 5,000 people — jointly delivered an “urgent appeal” on COVID-19 inoculation, saying 900 vaccine doses are set to expire by the end of the month.
“It would be a travesty, it would be a stain on our island’s reputation, I think, for us to have to throw away these vaccines at a time when people around the world are suffering the ravages of COVID and vaccines are in desperately short supply,” the governor, Andrew Pearce, said during a press conference.
As with Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, vaccines for Montserrat were procured and delivered by the U.K. government as part of the pandemic support to its territories.
While Gibraltar, which has 34,000 people, has completed its vaccination campaign and the Falkland Islands reported that 74% of the population has received at least one dose, the United Kingdom’s Caribbean territories are posting lower figures.
The rate of people who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose is 59% in the Cayman Islands, 39% in Anguilla, 31% in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and 26% in the British Virgin Islands.
This figure is 24% in Montserrat. Officials received 3,000 vaccine doses in February. But with almost a third of that number on the verge of being discarded, the government’s goal of inoculating up to 80% of its people is shifting.
As COVID-19 swept across the globe, it ravaged tourism in the Caribbean and sharply impacted regional economies. The International Monetary Fund says tourism revenue, which accounts for almost 40% of gross domestic product in the eight-member Eastern Caribbean Currency Union, “dried up.” The union’s economy is estimated to have contracted by 16% in 2020, with a further 0.5% decline expected in 2021.
“People in the tourism sector are suffering. And the only way we can alleviate their suffering is for us to be able to vaccinate our population, and encourage and invite persons to start coming in,” Premier Joseph E. Farrell said at the press conference.
Vaccine hesitancy will hinder recovery, Farrell said. He advocated for pushing back against conspiracy theories and against people calling in to radio programs to speak out against vaccines.
“Vaccine hesitation is real,” said Eugenia Corrales-Aguilar, a microbiologist at the Research Center for Tropical Diseases at the University of Costa Rica. She warned that it is important to separate people who advocate against all vaccines from those who are hesitant about the COVID-19 shot and need accurate and practical information.
Corrales-Aguilar studies Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. She has worked with bat coronaviruses since 2013, but her work shifted to COVID-19 in early 2020.
“People think the vaccines were developed really fast. That doesn’t mean they were developed sloppily. The process was done as it was supposed to be, but with lots of money, investment, and production,” she said.
“Social media has been detrimental to good information and education. I’ve heard everything, from mutations and becoming zombies to infertility. Even [with] the AstraZeneca vaccine, people think this is new technology, but there are some approved vaccines for Ebola, for example, that use this technology. The ‘wait and see’ fear can cost people their lives.”
Vaccination rates across the 26 members of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, or CARPHA, range from 4% receiving at least one dose in Trinidad and Tobago to 67% on the tiny island of Saba. With the United Kingdom responsible for vaccinating its territories in the region, the other members have relied on a mix of alliances to source their shots. In February, India donated 100,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Barbados and 70,000 to Dominica. Both nations shared their supplies with hard-hit neighboring islands.Get development’s most important headlines in your inbox every day.Subscribe
With support from CARPHA and the Pan American Health Organization, countries are also tapping into the COVAX global vaccine sharing initiative. CARPHA has used European Union funding to help 12 member states with COVAX payments, according to Dr. Joy St. John, the agency’s executive director.
“CARPHA is very concerned about equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by our Member States. The current pace will take us a while to reach the herd immunity required to return our economies to productive levels, or minimize the emergence of variants,” she wrote to Devex. “However, we understand that our Member States are doing their utmost to access quality, safe, efficacious vaccines.”
As vaccines pave the way for jump-starting the tourism sector, regional health authorities and leaders say the Caribbean cannot afford to be eclipsed by other tourism hot spots.
In 2019, the region recorded 31.5 million stay-over arrivals — its all-time best performance. Buoyed by those figures, officials were preparing for another stellar year — but COVID-19 upended business for one of the world’s most tourism-dependent regions. And while some countries are launching attractive work and vacation campaigns for visitors, the United Nations has warned that the modest economic growth expected globally this year will “barely offset the losses of 2020.”
“Vaccine hesitancy is a real concern to us, and CARPHA supports efforts to issue information based on scientific evidence,” said St. John, a former assistant director-general at the World Health Organization who is also a member of the Caribbean’s COVID-19 Tourism Task Force — a multiagency body hoping to steer countries to a safe reopening.
CARPHA is three months into a vaccine acceptance survey among social media users across member states. The agency hopes it will identify messaging gaps and barriers to vaccine uptake.
The health authority says the risk of further cases in the Caribbean remains very high, and it is urging countries to focus on reducing transmission and mortality.
For scientists like Corrales-Aguilar, the way to do this is through widespread vaccination.
“There’s something funny with COVID. You’ve seen what’s happening. You see people dying. You see how hospitals and health clinics are burdened. With so much COVID transmission, I would be scared of COVID and not the vaccine,” she said.
In Montserrat, the Cabinet’s next move might show the unvaccinated what they are missing, with incentives for those who have taken the jab.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not fair to treat people who are vaccinated the same way that we treat people who are not,” said Farrell.