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FLASHBACK: A member of the public is vaccinated against COVID-19 by a healthcare worker in August 2021, at the mass vaccination site at NAPA, which was managed by the Joint Chambers.

Business leaders have called on Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and his Government to take action and even institute mandatory vaccinations for public sector workers as a response to the rising COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country.

Following the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Thursday evening, the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce is calling on the government to act now in response to the wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

The Chamber, in a press release, said, “While the government has sent a message that, in time, some action will be taken, we believe the country cannot wait to take the actions required, as this could result in hundreds more of our citizens succumbing to the pandemic. We must act now to save lives.”

It called on the government to take visible leadership on the next phase of dealing with COVID-19, saying that the state is the single largest employer in the country and cannot continue to abdicate the issue of vaccination in the workplace, solely to the private sector.

“We are comforted by what appears to be a realization that further lockdowns should not be the course of action pursued…We ask that any actions be directed at the unvaccinated to encourage vaccination and to protect those who legitimately cannot be vaccinated,” the chamber’s release said.

The Chamber also called on the government to address the issue of citizens accessing services and said it should be moved to digital access.

Meanwhile, the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago said it agrees that should vaccination rates fail to increase, the government may have to implement new measures to ensure increased levels of vaccination.

“We are supportive of any actions by the State to adopt and publish a policy which makes it clearly permissible for an employer to implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, supported by a clear process, with reasonable exceptions and subject to the conduct of risk assessment,” AMCHAM’s release said.

“The consequences of inaction far outweigh the risk of some action,” it added.

President of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association Gregory Aboud believed Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made an important intervention at a critical time on Thursday night.

“The Prime Minister, in our opinion, set the right tone, gave the country the right warning and has put us on notice that more serious times may be ahead,” Aboud said.

Asked if he believed the Prime Minister was building a foundation for the possible implementation of vaccine mandates, he said there may be a need for such action.

He said the government’s elasticity and flexibility is coming to an end.

“He seems reluctant. Many people don’t want to create a division in society that will harm us more greatly than the COVID virus, but, at the same time, this is life and death. This is about saving lives and the Prime Minister has fired a shot across the bow about that and other measures that may be needed,” Aboud said.

Political scientists weigh in

Political scientist Dr Winford James was also full of praise for Dr Rowley’s address.

He said the speech was very good and well prepared.

“I thought it was a comprehensive speech that went back to the beginning and put Trinidad and Tobago in the context of the world—actually comparing Trinidad and Tobago—its interventions—n relation to COVID-19. I think he did a very good job,” Dr James said.

The political scientist believed Dr Rowley found a suitable sober tone that, in his opinion, offered reassurance even to his detractors.

He did, however, say that he thought the Prime Minister would go a bit further than merely recapping.

Another political scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath believed people were expecting the Prime Minister to be much more decisive in adopting policies, based on our crisis.

“No direct measure was instituted and hence, we simply have to wait and see when the Prime Minister will change the tide. Will this be determined – and I’m a political scientist – by the Tobago House of Assembly Elections, which are due in two weeks?” Dr Ragoonath said.

Dr Ragoonath believed it would have been politically disastrous for the government to institute any lockdowns, or similar actions, so soon after it prematurely ended the State of Emergency.

Epidemiologist – New strategies needed

Trinidadian-born epidemiologist Dr Farley Cleghron believes that, based on the rate of COVID-19 infections and vaccination uptake in T&T, new strategies are needed for people who are resisting inoculation.

The public health diplomat in Washington DC said while encouraging vaccinations through information provided by the government and public health experts work, there is a limit to the effectiveness of that approach.

“We can’t seem to get beyond 50% and if you look at the people who got their first dose only, it’s a very small number of people. Essentially, the demand has dried up,” Dr Cleghorn said.

“If you look at the numbers (of COVID-19 cases), does it show any sign of slowing right now? It does not….That means you have to do very specific and overlapping things to get your vaccine rate up. The two strategies, as far as we know, work to reduce transmission and impact—death and disability – the primary one is vaccination and the second strategy is mitigation.”

Dr Cleghorn said incentives and disincentives can be used to increase vaccination rates.

While incentives are known, he explained how disincentives work.

“Singapore has said, for example, come February, if you are unvaccinated and you show up ill in hospital, they will not reimburse that hospital for your healthcare cost,” Dr Cleghorn said.

Dr Cleghorn said the government has full power within public health law to make vaccinations mandatory.

“Existing law enables the government to do what is necessary in an emergency and outside of an emergency. A State of Emergency is easier to do mandates, but just regular public health law and the authority of the government everywhere, you can mandate vaccines. Trinidadians already live under vaccine mandates,” he said.