In a world where access to COVID-19 vaccines for people living in developing countries is severely limited through a global inequity in vaccine distribution, Guyana is doing a tremendous job in vaccinating her people. As at the end of July 19, Guyana has vaccinated over 50% of the adult population with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines. More than 25% of the adult population are fully vaccinated. But it is clear that there is double-digit vaccine hesitation, with a large section of the adult population refusing vaccines. A UNICEF survey in November/December 2020 in Guyana had revealed that at least 30% of the adult population expressed hesitation in taking the vaccines. In real numbers terms, Guyana has vaccinated more than 243,000 adults with their first COVID-19 vaccine dose. There are enough first dose vaccines for more than 350,000 adults in the country. This indicates that there are enough first dose vaccines for at least another 100,000 persons. But uptake rates in all ten regions have significantly slowed. In part, this is due to the significant number of anti-vax persons among us.
While Guyana has experienced some difficulties in obtaining second dose Sputnik V, Guyana has procured enough vaccines to fully vaccinate all adults. Shipping of these vaccines now remains Guyana’s challenge in ensuring there are enough vaccines to fully vaccinate all adults. But these vaccines will be in the country even if the arrival dates are uncertain. The bigger challenge now is to get every adult to voluntarily come forward for their vaccine. At some point, Guyana will have to address the need for vaccination for adolescents and children. For now, adolescents and children depend on adults doing the right thing and protecting children. The right thing to do to prevent more spread of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated as early as possible.
Vaccination in Guyana remains a voluntary option. Every Guyanese adult has a right to either vaccinate or refuse COVID-19 vaccine. Here is the problem: while a citizen has the right to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, he or she has no right to endanger the lives of any other person. Because there is a vaccine hesitancy, countries like America, where there is no shortage of vaccines, are falling below target. America had hoped that at least 70% of its population would be fully vaccinated by July 4. It is presently struggling to reach 70% with at least one dose; and, worse, struggling to reach 50% fully vaccinated. America is faced with the dilemma of what to do with the unvaccinated. These unvaccinated people in America have full and easy access to vaccination. Canada is facing the same dilemma, and so, too, are countries in Europe, Australia and Israel. These are countries that have enough vaccine to vaccinate their whole population.
Once Guyana has secured all the vaccines we need within our borders, we will have to confront the monster of vaccine hesitancy, like other countries are doing. France, and to a lesser extent Canada, has taken steps to deal with the unvaccinated, while preserving their right to voluntary vaccination. In the Philippines, that country has embarked on more draconian measures – jail time – for those who refuse to be vaccinated.
Unlike the Philippines, France has preserved the voluntary vaccination. But France has also instituted consequences for choosing to be unvaccinated. The French President has announced that those who choose not to be vaccinated cannot, at the same time, jeopardise the health of those who have voluntarily taken the COVID-19 vaccine. In France, the President has announced that employees in both the public and private sectors who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine must demonstrate they are COVID-19 FREE by producing a PCR confirmation weekly, and that these employees must finance the cost of testing from their own pockets. President Macron has announced also that anyone without a COVID-19 Vaccination Pass must produce a PCR COVID-19 negative test result before entering a restaurant or public transportation, including buses, trains and planes.
Every right is conditional. No one can exercise a right when, in so doing, it impedes another person from exercising his or her right. We are all entitled to a safe environment. Right now, people who are not vaccinated represent a danger, because they are the potential vectors for the COVID-19 virus. Right now, because the more dangerous form of the virus, the Delta Variant, has become the most dominant COVID-19 virus that is spreading around the world; and the more it spreads, not only is it leaving in its path many very sick people and many deaths, it is also changing into more dangerous variants, none of us can guarantee that as new variants arise, the vaccines will still work. Therefore, the unvaccinated represent a clear and present danger. No country can afford to allow some selfish people to jeopardise lives and the national economy.
Thus, France has shown a practical, pragmatic approach. France has preserved its voluntary vaccination programme, allowing anti-vax people to exercise their right. But France has also made it clear there are consequences. Public health always is supreme to the exercise of individual rights. A Government must provide an environment in which everyone is safe. Vaccination against COVID-19 is an obligation for a safe environment. For those who object, the onus is on them to prove they do not represent a clear and present danger.