Change vaccine approach – attorney

Outspoken attorney-at-law Michelle Russell is calling on those in authority to change the narrative around COVID-19 vaccination. She believes that officials are going about the discussions  in “the wrong way” while ignoring the psychological impact the conversations were having on the population.

Moreover, the Jamaica-born lawyer said some employers were “lying” that the reason they wanted staff to take the COVID-19 jab was due to health and safety concerns.

“If we are talking about the health and safety of workers, which I still do not believe is absolutely true – because there is nothing that hurts me more than hearing employers talk about the reason they want to do it, is for the health and safety of workers…

“But the ventilation systems that have been causing sickness in the environment for years have still not been fixed, people asking for proper equipment and chairs and that still has not been fixed, people who absent for too long you hear ‘when are you going to come back to work, you are inconveniencing the business’.

“And all of a sudden it is about health and safety?

“It is not true. That is why employees don’t trust what you say. That is why there is so much distrust, you have to be honest. Be honest and change the conversation from just health and safety,” insisted Russell.

She argued that if the encouragement to take the vaccine was about health and safety then equal attention should be given to the mental health of workers and the effects of this “coercion talk and the constant preaching”.

“Let us change the conversation to the economy. The reality is that to survive, the economy needs a large portion of people vaccinated. Whether or not we will reach herd immunity is up in the air but we still need to keep this going so that every time there is an outbreak there is not a lockdown,” she said.

She urged employers to reason with their employees about the effect the pandemic was having on the company and explain how it could affect their employment and the company keeping its doors open.

“A lot of employees can understand that but when you tell them get vaccinated or you tell them they are selfish or they have this social responsibility, they dig their heels in and won’t do it.”

Pointing out that the science showed there will be a one per cent or less of people who take the vaccine that will experience some adverse effects, Russell said “This one per cent is not just statistics, they are actual human beings.”

Russell said therefore, if employers wanted to insist that their workers take the vaccine, then they should follow World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and put in place a no-fault compensation.

“If you as an employer want to insist that they be vaccinated make sure you also accept responsibility for the rare occasion that somebody experiences an adverse effect. Get them to sign a waiver of liability for those who refuse to be vaccinated but there are so many other avenues,” she said.

She urged employers and those in authority to stop referring to people as “pro-vaxx or anti-vaxx”, insisting that “preaching” and trying to instill fear would only “bring about short-term change that generally cannot last.

Pointing to a recent study carried out by University of the West Indies academics that showed people felt bullied and coerced into taking the vaccine and that it was having an impact on their mental health, Russell said this was resulting in greater hesitancy.

President of the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners (BAMP) Dr Lynda Williams agreed that the national conversation around vaccination needed a make-over.

Stating that the country had fallen short in the areas of preparation, planning and communication, she said it was critical that authorities gain the trust of the population while planning for and dealing with the far-reaching spread of inaccurate information.

“You also have to deal with people’s concerns. What are the key concerns of the particular sectors,” she said.

“Also we need to enunciate clearly what is the national vaccine policy, what is the national strategy, how are we going about fighting this as a country and what is the public health campaign that we are going to use,” said Williams.

Pointing out that vaccine hesitancy was nothing new, she said BAMP’s policy from the get go was to look at what exists in law and what was needed for a national strategy that would require vaccination of certain sectors.

She proposed that regular testing be part of any policy that was developed. She insisted: “We need to re-examine our communication strategy, not take anything off the table.” She also suggested moving away from a top-down approach and trying new methods including having “workers recruit workers” for vaccination.

On Monday this week, Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced the appointment of veteran journalist David Ellis as the COVID-19 Public Advisor, as government seeks to improve its national vaccination campaign.