Guyana’s COVID-19 Vaccine dilemma cannot be solved outside of National Reconciliation
Elections have consequences. Guyana’s 2020 elections were inconclusive. Both major contestants challenged the outcome—one claimed fraud was committed before polling day while the other claimed there were attempts at fraud after polling day. This development precipitated a five-month impasse that brought into play a series of court cases and overt and covert interventions by external actors. In the end, the elections were awarded to the PPP and a government was installed. Some observers, including this writer, felt and still feel that that outcome was a mistake. Awarding an election to one side in the face of an inconclusive result against the backdrop of deep-seated ethno-political division is a recipe for instability that could escalate into open conflict.
In the circumstances, Vincent Alexander and I separately proposed that the most desired outcome should have been a joint power-sharing government. I argued for an interim arrangement of at least eighteen months to allow for a period of stability and the simultaneous building of an electoral machinery that could throw up credible elections. I said that I feared the worst as I was sure African Guyanese would not accept an installed PPP government. These sentiments were interpreted by pro-PPP forces as support for electoral rigging and I was banished by both the public and private media.
I was also accused of race-baiting and was laughed out of town when there was no uprising in the period following the installation of the new government. The PPP declared that the Coalition’s supporters had abandoned their party and leaders. The controversial shutting down of the West Berbice protests that followed the still unsolved murders of the Henry boys emboldened the PPP and they proceeded to rule with an iron fist. Only a few weeks ago the Attorney General boasted that the government was not getting any effective opposition.
The government felt so confident of invincibility that it , without any consultations, ordered mandatory vaccines to combat the steady spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like a thief in the night, the opposition that the AG asked for began to emerge as opposition supporters started to openly voice their opposition to the mandates. The PPP and its government quickly claimed that the opposition was behind the growing unrest. This writer, for example, was accused by Mr. Jagdeo of urging people to undermine the government’s vaccine drive. It was an accusation aimed at deflecting blame from the government. I am pro-vaccine and have never urged people not to be vaccinated. My urge is for the undermining of dictatorial rule and systemic racism.
Vaccine-skepticism and hesitancy are not confined to Guyana—it is a global phenomenon prompted by inherent distrust of government and in the case of Black people the knowledge that in the past they had been used without their knowledge as experiments for drugs. At the heart of the problem is the tension between personal liberty and collective security and between freedom and order. This is a tension which is permanent but is exacerbated when governments move to institute overt mandates of any type. Where does government responsibility end and personal liberty begins and vice-versa?
In Guyana, this dilemma is being played out against the backdrop of a deeply divided society in which half the population does not believe the government is legitimate. So, the anti-vaccine/ pro-individual liberty sentiment is folded into the already existing anti-government feeling that is fresh on the minds of opposition supporters. It is being played out within the context of ethnicity and power in which one ethnic group believes the government of the opposite ethnic group is using the vaccine mandates to physically harm them and to politically control them. Human fear is translated into ethno-political fear. That is what Guyana faces.
In such circumstances, government mandates, however well intentioned, have to be an absolute last resort. And even then, opposition representatives have to be brought on board in a sincere manner. Telling people that the vaccine works, and that public health is paramount is not helping the situation. Simply put, the vaccine problem has become a political problem with ethnic overtones. The sooner the government, the opposition and Civil Society recognize that truth, the better it will be for all Guyana.
Covid is real—it is a public health crisis of astronomical proportions that if not managed properly could be harmful for all citizens regardless of ethnicity and political affiliation. Whatever the real and perceived shortcomings of the vaccines, they are the most effective deterrents. Of course, there are other options that must be framed as alternatives. All public health options must be put before the public as solutions. Advocating vaccine supremacy or primacy, however justified and tempting it may be, is not an effective strategy at this point.
But to treat with the problem as purely one of public health while ignoring the political undertones and overtones is equally harmful. The two have to be taken together. Towards that end, government should not be the sole actor. As a first step, it needs to begin to engage the opposition and Civil Society as equal partners. This is critical because even if the government begins to do more education as some opposition activists are urging , it faces the real prospect of being tuned out by the target audience.
As someone who is active on the opposition side, I can say with much confidence that it is inaccurate to say that the opposition parties are wholly behind the anti-vaccine unrest. Much of it is self-generated by the people. Some of us like this writer are pro-vaccine, but we cannot ignore the concerns of our constituents. We also have a responsibility to face the dilemma. As someone who participated in some of the demonstrations, I can say it has become more and more difficult to articulate a public health message in the face of government mandates. The people have fused their anti-vaccine and anti-government advocacies. Some of us would say that that was inevitable. But now is not the time to score political points. We cannot beat COVID9 outside of national ethno-political reconciliation, even if temporarily. That’s the monumental challenge facing our political elites.