#BTEditorial – We allowed the vaccine to divide us – now here we are

It was not so long ago, a year to be exact, that the country engaged in a raging debate over the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some were strongly for taking the vaccine while others were vehemently against it.

In many instances, those against were made to feel like Public Enemy #1. This was so not only in Barbados but the world over. The marginalisation and discrimination towards those who refused to take the jab was evident through loss of rights, loss of jobs, loss of friends and in some cases loss of family. Entry to many countries were denied to the unvaccinated.

Life as we knew it was turned upside down when Government, like the rest of the world, embarked on a national drive to get people vaccinated.

On realising that further engagement was needed a series of townhall meetings “to inform and educate the public” started but this exercise proved to be bloodier than the social media battles which were already in tow.

At the meetings those against the vaccine were sometimes heckled and made to feel insignificant while those for it were perceived as “informed and enlightened”. The unvaccinated were labelled as an “uncaring and selfish” bunch who had no regard for life.

The first town hall meetings took place on Monday, August 9, 2021, at the Alexandra School in St. Peter, on Wednesday, August 11, 2021, at the Princess Margaret Secondary School in St. Philip, on Monday, August 16, 2021, at the Deighton Griffith Secondary School in Christ Church, and on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, at Combermere School in St. Michael.

Of these, the most dramatic lead to a viral video with a vaccinated individual spouting negativity towards the unvaccinated at the meeting at Deighton Griffith. It was there that a woman issued a stern warning to all who were unvaccinated not to come anywhere near her. And that was the beginning of the end.

Her words in part: “If wunna ain’t vaccinated, don’t come and talk to me because obviously, if wunna got Delta, I gine catch it. I gine fight it but wunna gine dead. . .  Stop the ignorance, stop it! and let us be grateful for what we as a small island have achieved.”

But prior to these meetings, on Saturday, August 7, 2021, the Barbados Concerned Citizens Group, with social activist Winston Clarke at the helm, led hundreds of Barbadians in protest against the vaccine. Hundreds, mostly dressed in white, marched from Pelican Village to Independence Square with some chanting: “Mia must go!” It was a mixed group representative of varying races, religions and ages.

The group had petitions signed against the vaccine, spoke out against workplace discrimination and tactics they deemed as “bullying” to encourage people to take the jab.

The debate raged on from social media to work places to shops and supermarkets. If you coughed or sneezed you were frowned upon. If you didn’t wear a mask there was a look of disdain.

There was a great divide on this 166 square mile land mass. So much so that by the end of the townhall meetings Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley came to the nation and stated categorically that the Government did not support the idea of a vaccine mandate because she would not allow the country to be further divided at a time she needed it to be united. These were words of wisdom from our Prime Minister.

But her words meant little to some hotels, restaurants, stores, retailers, telecom companies, et al, who all went ahead an enforced a vaccine mandate on their staff. Some did so overtly, others used subliminal tactics.

Then came the Omicron variant which proved to be the mighty leveller. We then started to record thousands of cases and some deaths, among the vaccinated.

Then it was later reported that many Bajans did not come forward for the second shot or boosters, a sign that many did not see the utility in taking the jab after Omicron’s onslaught.

Fast forward to today when Acting Prime Minister Santia Bradshaw told the nation that we had made great strides. She then reported that the mask mandate is “generally optional”.

“The wearing of masks generally will now be optional. However, mask-wearing remains mandatory for persons in nursing homes, private hospitals and senior citizens homes; persons in healthcare institutions including staff, visitors, clients and patients. All institutions where medical and dental services are provided. Persons in prison including staff, prisoners and visitors. Staff and students at all educational institutions. All nurseries and daycare facilities for both children and adults and of course persons who have COVID-19 as well as persons who are travelling on public transportation,” the acting PM said.

Hours before the briefing, AP News reported that Canada was set to lift its vaccine travel mandate at all borders from next Friday, September 30. And while the debate will rage on about the pros and cons of the vaccine, one thing is clear, those who stood their ground, those who held true to their convictions, those who did not waver or cower no matter the pressure of job loss, travel restrictions or else must feel vindicated. The unvaccinated who were once made to feel as though they were less than human, must now feel an immense sense of liberation.

Prime Minister Mottley was right. Rabid division has no real place in this country, even in a pandemic.

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