At the time of writing, 55 people had been confirmed as having, unfortunately, died in T&T of the coronavirus in May alone and, as day follows night, I am sure by the time you read this that figure would have increased.
We also have more than 4,000 active cases of people who are stricken with the virus and our hope and prayers are that they will recover fully.
This latest wave is without doubt the most intense we have seen and the signs are that we are in dangerous territory.
Most of us now know of people who have gotten the virus and too many of us know people who have succumbed to it.
I have spent significant space here talking about how as a country, our indiscipline, our lack of leadership that leads to a lack of focus and esprit de corps, makes us underachieve and this has allowed us to let down our guard in the fight against COVID-19.
I do not want to spend time here talking about whether the Government failed to heed the wisdom of the medical experts and what role Tobago and our Tobago-born Prime Minister played in the spread by his exhortation to people to visit the island of his birth for Easter.
They heard his message and went to the sister isle in their tens of thousands and, as could have been expected, the explosion followed. For me, that is now in the rear-view mirror.
What is important is how do we get out of this, because the economic and social price we have already paid will be magnified if we are not smart and disciplined in our approach.
It is globally accepted that the way to get out of a COVID crisis is through mass vaccination. Our Government has said they accept this and the Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh is on record as saying that the Government intends to achieve heard immunity by the end of the year.
He told the Senate on Tuesday that three things were crucial to herd immunity: “One is availability of vaccines, which we must have in large numbers, which we’re currently working on to good effect. Two is public confidence in the vaccines. And three, we need to get the UNC to stop undermining Government’s vaccination plan—that’s the most important component to reach herd immunity. If the UNC, as led by the honourable Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her spokesmen, keep on undermining faith in the vaccines, we won’t achieve it (herd immunity).”
He said coming together and providing leadership were needed.
“However, if the Opposition works with us we could administer 700,000 vaccines in about six to seven months to get herd immunity based on deploying vaccines to 104 health centres and ten mass vaccination sites as I indicated in my Cabinet note.”
The Minister of Health is right in terms of vaccine access and vaccine hesitancy and is even right about the failure of the Opposition UNC to put country first and play a constructive role in the fight against this pandemic, but the minister and Government have dropped the ball on so many occasions it has to introspect. At the end of the day, the country dropped the ball on the procurement of vaccines and should have been well on its way in its vaccination programme.
The vaccine shortages globally are without question but we have seen other Caribbean islands that have been willing to be more innovative and nimble, including Barbados and Jamaica benefiting from their initiative.
There are those who have even suggested that the Government’s inability to procure some vaccines from makers like Pfizer is because of concerns over the cost of the vaccines and that the strategy was always to wait on vaccines from the Chinese as part of a wider loan.
I think such talk has to be wrong because, if true, this Government is both penny smart and pound foolish and, more than that, unconscionable.
Any back of the envelope calculation of Pfizer vaccines costing as much as US$23 a dose, where you need two million doses to vaccinate at least one million citizens, means you will need to expend US$46 million or $313 million. That is in a real sense little money for T&T, which has billions of US dollars in the Central Bank and the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.
Who would object to the Government dipping into the fund to buy vaccines?
The Finance Minister on Monday tweeted the cost of the latest government help to citizens, which he puts at $440 million. The math does not work. It cannot be that the Government was hedging for other vaccines and loans. That would be negligence.
Pfizer’s chief financial officer Frank D’Amelio is reported as having said once the pandemic is over, the company will significantly increase the price it is charging for the COVID-19 vaccine.
He noted that countries were now getting what he called pandemic prices.
Pfizer is charging the US$19.50 per dose, D’Amelio said, which is “not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine—$150, $175 per dose. So, pandemic pricing.”
He added that Pfizer is “going to get more on price” and will increase output at its factories, driving production costs per unit lower
In initial deals with the US government, Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine costs US$19.50 per dose, compared with US$15 for Moderna’s shot, US$16 for Novavax’s programme, US$10 for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and US$4 for AstraZeneca’s. Pfizer didn’t take any government development funds for its shot, while other players received various amounts of assistance, and Pfizer was the first to reach the market.
So it must be a lack of access.
Now that it appears the Sinopharm vaccines are going to be made available, the Government must not drop the ball on this one. It must now start a public education campaign encouraging people to become vaccinated. It must reassure people, who rightly must consider their own risks and determine how safe they feel to take the vaccine. For what it is worth, I have taken my first jab, as has my mother and other close relatives and none of us has had bad experiences with it.
The pandemic has cost T&T too much already and we are going to be faced with a country that, even if we get it right going forward, would have lost hundreds of lives, billions in value, thousands of jobs, serious structural changes and we will have to pick up the pieces.
We will get some help in 2022 and 2023.
Our commodities production of oil and gas will improve.
Our prices for petrochemicals should stabilise at higher levels than they were a year ago.
We have finally seen that Carnival is an important part of the economy and just may see it and tourism as something important to develop.
The Ministry of Health and the wider society might just realise that a healthier nation, one that promotes exercise and dietary changes, are all in our interests. We may see that food security and farming are important and most of all, we will see how technology saved us. There is much to worry about and grieve but in doing so, we have to turn to the future and also look at how this economy could become more sustainable.
We have to think big and big is not penny smart and pound foolish.