Jamaica's first vaccination day brings optimism, though COVID-19 numbers continue to soar

COVID-19 immunisations begin. Photo by Province of British Columbia on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On March 10, the first anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in Jamaica, a senior public health nurse who confessed to being “afraid of injections” was the first national to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She received the vaccine at a faith-based centre for the homeless in downtown Kingston.

The day before the vaccination roll-out began, the Ministry of Health and Wellness announced that there had been 808 new cases reported in 24 hours, considered high for the country of 2.9 million. There have been 463 deaths recorded to date. Jamaica currently has close to 13,000 active cases and with 277 hospitalised, most public hospitals are close to or at full capacity.

On March 7, the beleaguered health minister Christopher Tufton had taken to Instagram with a personal plea for Jamaicans to observe COVID-19 protocols. His post was shared widely on social media.

At a press briefing the following day, Minister Tufton announced that the contagious COVID-19 Variant B117, first identified in the United Kingdom, had been found in Jamaica, after seven of eight samples sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in Trinidad and Tobago were confirmed.

Under such circumstances, the government made a point of focusing on the vaccines, with junior health minister Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn sharing photographs of Dr. Denise Eldemire Shearer, a high-profile advocate for senior citizens, receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine:

Jamaicans were also pleased to see Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, who has received praise for her calm, informative contributions to health ministry press briefings, receiving her vaccine:

Other than public health workers, who were top priority in the vaccine roll-out plan, two former prime ministers, P.J. Patterson and Bruce Golding, as well as retired Opposition Leader Peter Phillips, aged 85, 73, and 71 respectively, received their “jooks” (a Jamaican patois word meaning a poke or puncture, which netizens seemed to prefer to the more “foreign” word, “jab”). They urged fellow senior citizens to get themselves vaccinated as soon as possible, with Golding advising people not to pay any attention “to the propaganda [and] conspiracy theories” around vaccination:

On the morning of March 10, a small and little-known group of anti-vaxxers called the People's Anti-Corruption Movement stood with placards outside the Ministry of Health and Wellness. The group, which wanted the government to clarify that vaccination is not mandatory and that citizens will not be discriminated against should they opt out, posted a long list of concerns on Facebook, to justify why it felt the protest was necessary. Questions asked included whether the government will assume responsibility “for any damage done to any Jamaican citizen who is given the [AstraZeneca] COVID-19 vaccine,” or any other vaccines supplied from alternative sources.

The highly-anticipated first batch of 50,000 vaccines, a gift from the Indian government, arrived on March 8. Just under 16,000 health care workers are set to receive their first dose in March, with the second dose in May, followed by approximately 25,000 elderly persons and 25,000 members of security forces. This would leave approximately 75,000 seniors waiting until the second phase of roll-out.

The People’s Anti-Corruption Movement, however, advised people to strengthen their immune system “as the basis for dealing with any virus infection.”

Meanwhile, health care workers who took the vaccine posted numerous photos and videos of themselves getting their “jooks” with the hashtags #MiGetDiVaccine #VaccinateJa:

Another doctor tweeted simply:

Another shared:

Many Jamaicans felt relieved and encouraged:

Others, like Olympic medalist Yohan Blake, were not convinced. Blake asserted that if attending the Tokyo Olympics required a COVID-19 vaccine, he would not participate.

Explaining that “concern is different from conspiracy theory,” one Jamaican YouTuber responded to the doubters, commenting:

Dear J’cans: It’s a choice, so why the noise? No one is forcing you to roll up your sleeve.

Human rights activist Susan Goffe, however, suggested that the tide of doubt over vaccines may have turned:

Despite the lifted spirits, sustainable development specialist Dr. David Smith reminded Jamaicans that the country still has a long way to go:

Newspaper columnist Raulston Nembhard added:

There is a glimmer of hope with the arrival of the first batch of vaccines, but it will be some time before vaccines arrive in the quantities desired and for the majority of people to be vaccinated. And we still have to get many beyond the myths that may hamper a robust vaccination of the population […] Sometimes there seems to be some diffidence or timidity on the part of the authorities to tell people the unvarnished truth. They do not want to scare people. But Jamaicans need to be scared right now. If things persist as they are, a lot can get bad very quickly. This is no joke.

Still, that glimmer may grow brighter over the next few days as additional doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive.

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