Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has questioned whether there is “great value” in “sitting down to talk” with the opposition in an attempt to boost the nation’s vaccination effort, as a prominent business executive suggested on Sunday.
On WE FM, Joel Providence, chief executive officer of Coreas Hazells Inc., noted the nation’s low vaccination rate and said that the support of national, business, community, religious, social and other leaders is needed to address the situation.
“We need to engage, as a collective, all leaders of influence at national, community and institutional levels,” Providence said.
As of last Wednesday, St. Vincent was still way below the 50,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines that health officials had hoped to have administered by the end of March.
So far13,782 second doses and 21,336 first doses, for a total of 35,118 doses.
At the same time, the country might be forced to donate to another Caribbean country yet another batch of vaccines in an effort to prevent spoilage.
Providence, speaking on Issue At Hand, suggested that the various categories of leaders he proposed bring to “the forum” certain skill sets and attributes.
“Firstly, that they need to have relevant legitimacy; they must have a sense of accountability and not for selfish pursuits, but to the nation as a whole. They should have good communication skills,” he said, adding that this includes both speaking and listening well.
“Another attribute must be dedication to common purpose. We must map out what it is that we are focusing on and I believe that there is a general consensus across the country that there is a common purpose, what the common enemy is,” Providence further said on Issue At Hand.
“We should all be on the same road to Damascus. We are dealing with COVID, we should have one vision as to where we are going and then we can discuss the nuances in terms of the approach to getting there. Some will be in front, some will be behind but all of us should not be at cross purposes. We are all going to Damascus for the same reason.”
He said that to his mind, acts such as strikes and protest should not be the first action contemplated.
The two main public sector unions, the SVG Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union have held strikes and other protest actions to register their objection to the government’s vaccine mandates for some “frontline workers”.
“If you are a political leader, as well, see that you are on the same road, let us make sure that the political leaders talk and focus on the common good. Let the purpose for which we are here prevail over self-interest, particularly at this time.
“There will always come a time when we will focus and can focus on partisan needs and so forth and that of a particular organisation, but, right now, for the sake of the country, leaders have to stand up and focus resolutely and exclusively on the common purpose for the common good.
“The leader should also be inclusive and not divisive… We also have to be decisive…” the executive said, adding that the leader cannot react to what a particular grouping might be thinking.
Providence also said that leaders have to be solution-oriented and sensitive and sensitised.
“Leader of one cloth or the other — and deliberately use the word cloth — I am sure we are realising with COVID, their degree of influence is compartmentalised and also helps to shape or limit the power that they may have.”
He said that while there might have been an outreach to radio DJs to help to push the vaccination effort, they have their limitations.
“Not that they don’t have a role to play but I am just saying that their influence may be limited to music taste, local vernacular, slang, cultural events and the like, [and] not necessarily to driving the vaccination numbers up.”
Political leaders, on the other hand, have influence “on national economic activity, job creation, contracts for public sector projects, physical and social infrastructure and the like, but not necessarily, and not fully, and not to the extent that we expect to push the vaccination drive. And the numbers are there. It is obvious,” Providence said.
“Religious leaders who do not proclaim themselves to be anything but simple sensible messengers of God, they, likewise, their influence in the vaccination process is fairly limited by themselves. “
He said he was deliberately excluding, for the time being, those religious leaders who “who believe they have a great messianic gift to heal through prayer and touch”.
Providence said that was a slightly different topic and he preferred to leave that for another debate.
“So I am just saying if you look at our leaders, sectionalised, their respective power and influence is limited but together, once there is social cohesion at the top and there is a clear sense of purpose, the influence would be significantly greater.
“To advance our quest to make the nation safe, our leaders have to, therefore, secure greater public trust, which means coming to terms with people’s self-interest, recognising what they are — their beliefs. Some beliefs are fully informed and some beliefs are not as informed as we would like them to be. We also have to take into consideration their convictions, their social norms, and general social mores.”
Speaking later in the same programme, the prime minister said:
“Joel has said that we must sit down and talk. I don’t know if there is a great deal of value in the government and the opposition sitting down to talk. Aren’t we told that the NGOs and the doctors and those persons should go and talk with the people about vaccines? Isn’t that what is being said?”
Providence said all those who are interested and willing to come together should come together.
“The focus here is on the community leaders in particular. And we need to drill down to those leaders, they are out there; they are willing to support the national effort and we should reach out to them, first, by bringing them together and to talk about what the central talking point should be.”
Gonsalves, however, countered by saying that he understood that up to about a month ago 90% of the workers at the Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC) are vaccinated and that he expects it to be almost 100% now.
Providence said that as of Friday there were 16 remaining to be vaccinated out of a workforce of 160.
He said that at his company, Coreas Hazells Inc., 171 of the 200 staff members were vaccinated.
The prime minister asked what is the reason why other employment units can’t reach those numbers.
“Because I would like to think that at ECGC and, maybe, Coreas, that they are talking with the staff on a consistent basis and trying to facilitate every action possible to try to get them vaccinated. There are incentives and let them know that ‘Listen, this thing is for their health and family ‘and make it as easy as possible for them to get it done, on a consistent basis, don’t let up.”
The PM asked Providence if he has been speaking with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce other firms in this regard.”
He said a private sector initiative has been set up several firms. “… we hope to come out in a week or so with certain programmes for the firms and for the general public in consultation with the Ministry of Health, where required.”
‘Population immunity’ through vaccination of workers
The prime minister said that using broad stats and the number of people who pay NIS there are close to 50,000 people who are gainfully employed.
He said the state sector employs about 28% of the labour force and about one-quarter are own-account people.
“If the employers encourage their workers and they get them, and, similarly, the state sector, and we are doing things in terms of persuasion, all the time, but given the services which we deliver, particularly in education and health and at the airports and seaports and the prisons and the police, we have to put requirements in place and those rules are coming.”
He said that rules could be published next week to require vaccination for certain state employees.
“So we can reach a number close to what we may call population immunity. And we can do it. But the private sector has to have an obligation, the employers, alongside with the unions,” Gonsalves said, adding that the National Workers Movement and Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union appear to be supportive of the government’s efforts.
On the issue of reaching population immunisation, Providence said:
“I’m convinced that we can do it. But I think we have to make sure that the managers and so forth that they are onboard. And I am at a loss as to why some of them don’t recognise that they have a responsibility to ensure that the staff is vaccinated and the country goes forward.”
Should MPs disclose vaccination status?
The prime minister said that if one says certain things, people would say they are being divisive.
“But up to this point in time, there are members on the opposition side of Parliament who have not been vaccinated…
“The point is this, this argument that you are going to wait and wait, and you support the vaccine but it is somebody’s choice, the point is this, you are part of a society.
“We need to have unequivocal declarations. This is why I raised the question with — I said to you, Joel, I don’t know what is the benefit you going to have for the government and the opposition to sit down when there are persons on the opposition benches, in fact, from my observation, and my conclusion as to what is going on, and I hope that I am wrong, that most of them are not vaccinated.”
Providence said that the country has a right to know what the status of each MP is and what informed the decision.
The prime minister said that everybody on the government side of Parliament is vaccinated.
“These are national leaders and where we are right now, we need to know,” Providence said.