Very little in the EC$1.3 billion 2022 budget can succeed “in the absence of a substantially-vaccinated population,” says Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves.
As he presented the fiscal package to Parliament last Monday, one day before testing positive for COVID-19, the minister, who is vaccinated, said that vaccine supply and vaccine hesitancy remain the greatest impediments to a global recovery from COVID.
He said that for a while, there was hope that the arrival of vaccines would mean that the world could reach global herd immunity.
“But those hopes have been dashed as we’ve failed to vaccinate enough people and more contagious variants have circulated widely.”
He said that in the context of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, “the overriding threat to our economic recovery is vaccine hesitancy.
“Make no mistake: There is very little in this budget that can properly succeed in the absence of a substantially-vaccinated population. There is no return to any semblance of normalcy without vaccination now and for the immediate future.”
Gonsalves said that SVG lags well behind its neighbours in vaccination rates.
According to information released in the budget debate on Friday, as of Jan. 12, 63,245 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in SVG. There were 34,018 first dose, 27,252 second dose; 1,880 first dose booster and 95 second dose boosters.
“There are few nations in the developing world that have been more fortunate than St. Vincent and the Grenadines in procuring vaccines, yet more hesitant to take them.
“We have donated thousands of vaccines to sister nations whose citizens have eagerly lined up to receive their protection. Meanwhile, many of us have chosen to delay and dither when faced with the fierce urgency of the moment,” said Gonsalves, whose government passed laws last year mandating a wide cross-section of the public sector workers to take a COVID-19 vaccine or lose their jobs.
“There is no way around the fact that we must choose to vaccinate. In this valley of decision, when the moment demands true leadership, there are those who opt instead to dissemble, and cower behind self-serving semantics, shirking the very mantles that they hold or pursue,” the finance minister said.
“At this crossroads, for good or ill, our future will be determined by those political, community, and religious leaders who hold and proclaim the courage of their convictions. This moment, and the judgment of history, will deem irrelevant the mealy-mouthed meanderings of those whose only objective is to speculate about which way the winds of public opinion may blow next.”
He said that the prime minister has distilled his analysis of the challenge of vaccine hesitancy into a publication that “presents the myopic self-interest of the ‘atomised’ individual against the collective interests of ‘social’ individuals, who are capable of making personal choices for the greater good”.
The finance minister said that beyond any policy or programme in the Budget, “we must internalise that distinction, and recognise that it takes all of us, acting together, to uplift our nation.
“A pandemic, by its very definition, affects all of us, together. We are either a community or we are a loose collection of self-interested individuals who care not about their neighbour, their country or their fellow man. That is the starkness of the challenge we face.
“The same strength and solidarity that we have deployed countless times to withstand every external challenge must now be called upon to defeat the challenge within. We must reject all attempts to edit the “public good” out of our Constitution or solidarity out of our social contract.
“We must move beyond the false equivalence of equating social media misinformation with epidemiological expertise.”
The minister said that his government makes no claims that our vaccine policies and programmes can or will be perfect.
“Yet perfection should never be the enemy of the good. However, lethargy, hesitancy and misinformation are the intractable enemies of progress, development, health and safety. Let us be clear: we will not defeat COVID by hiding from COVID. We will defeat COVID by confronting the pandemic with the science, strength and solidarity.”
He said that the recognition that “modern development is not a top-down process” permeates the budget
“Our development, and our future, is bound up with our ability to control COVID. As such, there is an act that everyone can do, a single decision that has a direct impact on our collective future – being vaccinated. This is an act that will directly and meaningfully help to determine our development trajectory, to say nothing of protecting yourself, your family, your friends and your community.
“We ask, again, for everyone who is not yet vaccinated to do so immediately. COVID is not going away any time soon. But the difference between being crushed by the pandemic and coexisting safely with endemic COVID is the difference between development and regression. Life and death. Vaccinated and unvaccinated.”
He said that division over vaccination is often a proxy for other divisions in the Vincentian society and our polity, but it does not have to be.
“Nobody in our country wants people to be sick and dying. Nobody wants our hospitals overwhelmed. Nobody wants to spread COVID to their friends, neighbours and co-workers. Not every division should be exploited as an opportunity for political point-scoring and petty populism,” the finance minister said.
“Partisanship can come later — now is a time for patriots. Those who want the best for St. Vincent and the Grenadines must concede that we have to live with COVID among a population that is resistant to the worst effects of the disease.
“That means vaccination. Certainly, vaccination will not completely eradicate COVID transmission. Strict protocols and other interventions must play an important part. But we cannot optimally save lives and reduce transmissions without vaccination. That is the reality we must all accept.”