Trinidad and Tobago enters today with a few significant developments in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. For one thing, the cases and deaths continue unabated although there is a plateauing in Trinidad. However, the medical experts continue to express alarm at what is happening in Tobago, where the cases and deaths continue in an upward direction daily, coupled, of course, with a high level of vaccine hesitancy on the island.
That vaccine hesitancy is also mirrored on the national front where tens of thousands of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines could be left on our hands when they expire in November because of the slow uptake by the public overall.
The Government moved from a point of uncertainty on how and from where it would acquire vaccines earlier this year to giving citizens the luxury of a choice of AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and Sinopharm jabs. This was done through a combination of vaccine diplomacy with our regional and international partners, including Barbados, Bermuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, China, India, Canada and the United States, and shrewd negotiations with the companies who produce the vaccines.
Similarly, the argument from certain sectors of the public shifted from consternation over the Government’s inefficiency at securing vaccine supplies to now offering freedom of choice as an argument for persons’ refusal to inoculate themselves against the deadly virus now that jabs are overwhelmingly available.
T&T-born US-based rapper Onika “Nicki Minaj” Maharaj entered that fray within the last 48 hours when she claimed a relative’s friend here developed a swollen testicle after getting inoculated. In Twitter conversation, Maharaj suggested this situation had fuelled her own consternation over taking a vaccine — although admitting she had already contracted the virus. Naturally, in the media firestorm created since then, Maharaj was taken to task by medical experts, world leaders and organisations, all denying any suggestion vaccines could lead to impotency and slamming her for spreading such misinformation on her social media platform of over 180 million followers.
And while all this was going on, with Trinidadians locally and internationally slamming Maharaj for bringing the country into disrepute, the Ministry of Health was seemingly asleep and made no attempt to debunk Maharaj’s claim. Indeed, in a week that started off with a claim by an individual on social media that a relative, purportedly a student, had died after taking a second Pfizer shot, the ministry should have been shouting to the hills in response here as well.
At a time when even the local anti-vaxxers are putting out misinformation hourly on social media, in particular, the Ministry of Health is still not proactive with its own campaign of truth, which is critical given the slow down in the vaccine uptake across T&T. As the US’ director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci, said in response to the Maharaj backlash yesterday, the only way to dispel misinformation is to put correct information and debunk the untruths in the public domain. T&T’s goal of reaching herd immunity must not be derailed by this slip-up from a daughter of the soil. We thus await the Ministry of Health’s adjustment to its communication response to unfortunate situations like this and others ahead.