Mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 developed into a full-blown political tug-of-war on Friday as critics of the government sought to build opposition to the measure even as mandates sweep across a virus-torn region.
As a collection of anti-mandate advocates joined by anti-vaxxers moved to frame the issue as people’s right to autonomy over their bodies, president of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Verla DePeiza warned against hasty moves toward mandatory vaccination.
But a prominent political analyst cast the mandates as a politicized issue in which opposition parties sense a “juicy political opportunity”.
Expressing “alarm” and “dismay” at the violent demonstrations that left Vincentian Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves injured on Thursday, DePeiza suggested that regional governments seek to allay the fears of the masses instead of compounding them.
She told Barbados TODAY: “Prime Minister Gonsalves could have died yesterday. A blow to the head is significant and that should be a sobering moment for all of us as to how we respond in stressful situations. But in terms of the meat of the matter and what is under discussion across the region, we have to recognize that the entire COVID experience has been a nervous one for our people and, as leaders, it is for us to be allaying their fears, not adding to them.
“I honestly hoped that we had scaled that fence and moved forward, but [protest] usually is a moment of last resort for a people and I truly hope that Barbados has not reached that stage, that we can still have the dialogue and reason and that we can have a type of leadership that allows for dissenting voices to be heard whilst educating them, to put people in a way to make informed decisions. That truly is it.”
As social and religious groups prepare to march the streets of Bridgetown on Saturday opposing mandatory vaccines, the DLP president slammed the Government’s plan to seek a legal opinion on the issue.
“This is an instance where you must lead from the front because this is the responsibility of the Government, and anytime you are looking to force a position, you have stepped away from democratic principles,” DePeiza said.
“We also have to be cognizant of the fact that we are dealing with a more astute and sophisticated Barbados than we did back in the 60s and the 70s when we brought in certain mandatory vaccines. More information, as well as misinformation, is out there that people can source for themselves. Therefore, the way to deal with it is to be ahead of the game.
“We did not do that and it was concerning and remains concerning that Government would feel the need to go the route of seeking an opinion on whether or not they can have mandatory vaccines. There is no need to get a legal opinion on what we already know the Government can do; it is about whether or not Government should do it.”
Violent protests in Kingstown boiled over on Thursday when Members of Parliament entered the lower house to debate the Public Health (Amendment) Act which has been widely viewed as a move toward forced vaccinations.
But political scientist Peter Wickham noted that the actions being taken by the Gonsalves administration are no different to vaccine measures being taken across the region and in many developed countries including Germany, the United Kingdom and France.
Wickham contended that the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) is attempting to use “convenient political issues” like the COVID situation to “manipulate public opinion”.
“So this idea that this government is dictatorial and high handed and all of those things, I reject all of those ideas because it is not grounded in any evidence,” Wickham told Barbados TODAY.
“We are having a situation now where people are saying that the Mottley administration is high handed because it is pursuing a republic without a referendum and the evidence would suggest that several governments have done so without necessarily seeking the blessing of the public in a referendum.
“So, I think it is a careful manipulation of the circumstances to bring this idea that the Ralph Gonsalves government is behaving in a way that is distinctively different. And I am not buying it, because there is really no evidence to support that and I challenge anyone to say to me which government in the Caribbean has handled the situation differently,” Wickham added.
He has described Government’s national consultation, particularly at the level of the Social Partnership, as delaying the inevitable move toward vaccinations.
Wickham added that numerous other underlying factors, like dwindling popular support for the Gonsalves administration, distinguish the Vincentian experience from the situation in Barbados. He also said that Saturday’s protest here is less likely to result in disruption due to a seemingly gentler approach to the issue by the Mottley administration.
“I think Prime Minister Mottley understands that the Social Partnership is a far better tool to manage these kinds of situations than having a government essentially make those kinds of positions. The challenge is that in most islands you don’t have the level of consensus that will allow for that and the morsel of political opportunity is very juicy and as a result, people are coming forward and acting on it,” he said.
“My feeling, however, is that the Social Partnership will not achieve consensus on the way forward and the Mottley administration will have to act and any protest will have to be responded to in a way that suggests that there is nothing wrong with peaceful protest, but certainly civil disobedience of that level, bad behaviour and what not cannot be tolerated at this time.”
On the developments in Kingstown, the pollster said he believes that the relatively ‘young’ Gonsalves administration that is in the early stages of a new term will recover from Thursday’s protests.
Said Wickham: “I think that as a result of this, a number of people will check themselves and say ‘look, maybe some people have gone too far’ and maybe the leaders of it will actually sit and take stock.
“To me it will be very difficult in the wake of this for these same individuals to mount a protest again and be seen as anything legitimate, largely because there was an element of lawlessness. So if their intention was to spark a civil uprising, I believe it has had a reverse effect.”