Trinidadian Prime Minister Keith Rowley handed locals a major Christmas gift this week, allowing them seven hours of beach time for the first time since last year. But the twin island republic with Tobago is in the throes of the worst outbreak of the COVID pandemic among its Caribbean Community neighbors.
Health authorities reported a record 33 deaths in a single day and testing has so far exposed five cases of the new and deadly Omicron strain including four which were brought in by passengers entering the country from the U.S. in the past two weeks.
And even as the cabinet has asked beachgoers to be responsible and wear face masks once outside the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, authorities have decided to shut down the local public service from Christmas Eve to January 2nd, 2022 to help minimize human contact in small spaces to reduce infections.
Additionally, a controversial vaccine mandate for government workers is being put into effect even as labor unions and staff associations are railing against it, arguing about constitutional and personal rights being violated.
At his weekend press briefing, Rowley announced that all government workers must take the jab by mid January 2022 or they will be forced to remain at home without pay because the civil service must operate as a safe zone. This has sparked outrage among some groups with many deeming the move as unfair.
“We have come to the point where the government will have to take certain actions,” Rowley said. “I have had extensive discussions with the attorney general and his support team in his ministry and his advisers outside and we will now move to a situation of insisting that people in Trinidad and Tobago acknowledge the government’s policy that vaccination is our best way of dealing with the carrier of death and destruction.”
Reacting to the announcement, for example, the Protective Services Association (PSA) composed of the police, fire and prison services, made it clear the group is against the mandate suggesting it breaches international labor relations practices.
“We are not in support of any constructive mandatory vaccination, as we deemed it the same as mandatory vaccination. The varying terms and conditions of employment without consultation is illegal and goes against all established industrial relations practices/laws, as articulated by the president of the industrial court, Deborah Thomas-Felix.
“Every person has the constitutional right to the enjoyment of property and for workers that is their salaries. The announcement threatens to violate those rights, which we utterly reject.”
The most southerly of the Caribbean island chain has now found itself in the toughest position among its regional neighbors with Rowley complaining about unacceptable levels of vaccinations even though several versions of globally approved vaccines are available to the populace.
The bad news comes just weeks after authorities had bowed to pressure from the entertainment and food sector to allow them to reopen after a year of financial battering from the pandemic and forced closures.
Still, health officials point to statistics which show that the security sector has had the lowest vaccination rates nationwide with 49% being the highest. The shutdown of the civil service, says Rowley, is to also allow workers to go and get vaccinated.
“This is not an invitation to go out there and congregate. ‘Long time I ain’t see you.’ This is an invitation to stay at home, stay close in whatever bubble you would have created. Try and protect yourself from unnecessary exposure. If we do that nationwide, we anticipate that it could have an effect of breaking the infection tsunami,” he said.