Major David Clarke CVO, ADC may well be among Barbados’ little known but highly accomplished and decorated citizens. Yet, this military man, who has been given the mammoth assignment of co-coordinating the vaccination of Barbados’ population against COVID-19, remains quite reserved about his achievements.
The high-ranking officer of the Barbados Defence Force (BDF) paused his hectic schedule recently to speak to COVID Weekly about the COVID-19 vaccination programme which he leads along with Dr Elizabeth Ferdinand.
Interrupted several times by telephone calls, he responded to each with measured tones, before seamlessly resuming his interview. This, he explained, was typical of his daily routine, even before the logistical public health mission was added to his long list of tasks.
A member of the army who originally joined the Barbados Regiment in 1978 at the age of 16, his focus has been keenly trained on youth development. He has proudly helped to develop the Duke of Edinburgh International Award – (DEIA) Foundation over the last 30 years.
Major Clarke has been the DEIA Foundation’s regional director for the Americas for 20 years. He has also been the Foundation’s international field officer and regional consultant.
But this is just a fraction of the Major’s responsibilities. He is Honorary Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General Dame Sandra Mason, chairman of the Barbados Youth Business Trust for the past 27 years and advisor to the Princess Trust and The Princess Foundation.
Major Clarke, who holds a 6th degree black belt in karate, is President of the International Karate Daigaku, and has been an instructor of the sport with the Barbados Shotokan Karate Club for almost 30 years.
But there is an aspect of Major Clarke’s military life, of which many are not aware. He is the point man for the British Royal family, and they rely on his experience and expertise to guide them on their official trips to the Caribbean.
Planned Royal Visits
“Most Royal visits that have come to this part of the world since 1986, I have either been involved in the plans or I’ve been the person responsible for planning them,” he disclosed.
Those high-ranking visits included the 2012 Diamond Jubilee visit to Barbados and The Eastern Caribbean by Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II and his wife the Countess of Wessex. Major Clarke was also heavily involved in 2016, when Queen Elizabeth’s famous grandson Prince Harry undertook an extensive tour to the island.
How did Major Clarke become such an important figure in the relationship between Barbados and the British Royal family? He simply explains: “Though I started out with the Barbados Regiment, I was in the right place at the right time, a long time ago. I was employed by the Duke of Edinburgh Award International Foundation for over 30 years, during which I was cross-trained as many things.”
The BDF officer believes it is his expertise in logistics, in executing significant projects all over the world, that resulted in his being tapped by Prime Minister Mia Mottley to co-coordinate the COVID-19 vaccination programme in February.
Another example of those sought-after skills has been the hosting of over 200 young people from across the region for the annual The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Caribbean Expedition (CASC). Started in 1980, the only period that the hiking expedition failed to be staged was last year and this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of those young people who were unable to take part in the camp last year, however, have followed their mentor, Major Clarke in his latest pursuits as national coordinator of the COVID-19 vaccination programme. They have volunteered their services for the noble cause.
The BDF officer told COVID Weekly, the logistical component of his latest assignment was “not challenging”.
He explained: “Setting up the drive-throughs, the physical centres and putting the teams together was not a challenge. The difficulty was mainly the appointment system and getting people to come at the times that they were supposed to.”
No Place for Disorder
For this military officer, disorder is the antithesis of his personality. And he admits the early difficulties associated with the vaccination process were a source of disappointment.
“There is a culture in the polyclinics where you have an appointment for 2 p.m. and you come at 8 in the morning. No matter what appointment time you gave people to get their vaccination, they came at a particular time. It was about trying to change the culture,” he lamented.
The question many Barbadians have been asking since Major Clarke’s appointment to head the vaccination process in February, was what’s the connection between the army and the public health campaign.
“Most people understand the role of the BDF in terms of security and the ceremonial duties . . . . But the army is a multi-faceted organisation which is really suited for challenges of today.”
An example of the extensive capabilities of the local army was displayed in its capacity to handle medical situations.
Courage of Soldiers
And during the last Independence Day celebrations, the courageous efforts of many BDF personnel were highlighted and acknowledged. Its medical teams were on the front line attending to passengers and crew of several cruise ships which had suspected COVID-19 outbreaks aboard the vessels.
“The BDF has many strands. There is the security aspect. There is the search and rescue by our Coast Guard. What people may not be aware of is that the Barbados Defence Force is only one of two armies in the world with a World Health Organisation (WHO) accredited field hospital. The other being the Israeli Defence Force.
“Barbados has a Type 1 emergency field facility, and we are in the process of going after the Type 2 accreditation,” he revealed.
Again this year, the men and women of the BDF were called into action. They were given the task of assembling and distributing over 60 000 care packages to the most vulnerable households across the island.
Of this project, he commended the leadership of Major Alfred Taylor, a reserve officer who led this process. Clarke also lauded the support provided by the regular force, reservist, ex-servicemen, volunteers, and friends of the BDF, who contributed to the success of that national effort.
He also acknowledged the important role played by Lieutenant Colonel Junior Browne who guided the Seek and Save effort which involved BDF soldiers and University of the West Indies student interviewers.
According to Major Clarke: “It was a challenge that the BDF was given, and I believe we delivered on the challenge. In fact, the BDF has risen to all the challenges that have been asked of it, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
There is one assignment that was given to members of the army and some have endured personal sacrifices as a result.
Major Clarke revealed that a number of the BDF soldiers became infected with COVID-19 as a result of their duties.
Despite the army’s strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols, such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, and face coverings at its bases, an undisclosed number of military personnel came down with the viral illness.
He told COVID Weekly: “We did have some infections. In some of the roles that BDF officers are playing, which include transporting COVID-19 patients, as well as testing, some members of the BDF became exposed. But certainly, the COVID-19 protocols are highly observed at the BDF.
“When they are out collecting patients and if the people don’t also observe the protocols, then our soldiers are put at risk. We have had some officers who contracted COVID-19 and had to go through the quarantine and isolation process.”
Major Clarke said he was unaware of any current infections among the ranks of the BDF.
And as soldiers and other frontline workers were vaccinated in recent weeks, Major Clarke is immensely proud of the work undertaken by the various vaccination teams.
In just over a month, they completed the inoculation of just under 64 000 people with the first dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
Those vaccines were a gift from the Government of India who provided 100 000 doses to Barbados and 70 000 to Dominica in the shipment to the region.
India produces the vaccine under licence.
With the arrival last week of an additional 33 600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, it is expected that 100 000 people on the island should be fully inoculated against the deadly viral illness shortly.
Confident in the teams
Speaking with a level of confidence about the national vaccine effort, Major Clarke said: “We put a plan and structure in place to deliver the vaccines. And so, if we had all the vaccines in stock at the time, we probably would have delivered to the entire population in a short space of time.
“Had we received an unlimited supply of vaccine, it would have meant the programme would have run longer and we would have vaccinated many more people,” he explained of the break taken in the vaccination process to prepare for the administration of the second dose and to await supply under the COVAX facility.
“It helped that we also have an excellent public health system which we capitalized on. We will start the second dose of the first phase on April 17 and run that until we have done all of the second doses.”
The soldier conceded that there were teething problems in the early stages of the vaccination programme. However, those issues are expected to be alleviated with the introduction of a new smart phone application that was developed to greatly improve the appointment process.
“The teams got better and better as the process went on and we have been able to resolve the appointment issues we faced in the beginning. The new app coming out for people receiving their first dose of the vaccine. This app will allow them to schedule their locations, dates and times, and it will give them a confirmation of these things.”
At the time of the interview, Major Clarke said the only delay was access to the vaccines, which have since arrived on the island.
With efforts intensified to ensure the protection of citizens, the vaccine coordinator believes the processes are well in place for rapid delivery of the vaccines to those people who desire it.
Moreover, Major Clarke is convinced there is a higher level of vaccine acceptance among Barbadians than has been suggested. Despite protestations of a vocal section of the population, who have expressed doubts about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, he says all indications are that people in every age group are keen to be protected.
“Based on my experience from the pop-ups that we mounted, we never advertised them, and we were overwhelmed on every occasion because people just showed up.
“The idea was to get into communities where people would not necessarily register to be vaccinated. So far, I have not seen any indication that people do not want to get vaccinated.
“Once we have sites within the communities and on the blocks, I don’t think that this will be as great an issue as some perceive.
“People have been asking for the vaccine and I think if we had the vaccine in storage, certainly we could have completed this in a quick manner because of the mobile teams we have in place.”
The Major, who has spent most of his life working with young people, said he and his teams are not averse to establishing vaccination sites near the “blocks” where young people socialize.
“We can set up at a rum shop, we can set up in different locations in order to deliver the vaccines. It is not a problem. The delivery mechanism is not difficult for us to put in place,” he asserted.
He added: “We are very adaptable and very agile. We can move to any of those locations quite easily.”
This article appears in the April 12 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here: http://bit.ly/COVIDWeekly8