The protestors attempt to block the side entrance into the parliament yard
August 10, 2021
Amendment to Public Health Act a violation of rights – protestors

Many workers in the public service, including frontline workers believe that the amendments made to the Public Health Act last Thursday in Parliament, are a violation of their right to personal choice.

It is that collective view that drove nurses, teachers and other members to the picket line prior to the bill’s successful passage last week.

“I should have the right to choose, my patients should have the right to choose. My family should have the right to choose. When you interfere with a person’s freedom, you interfere with their rights,” Sue-Ann Moore Matthews, a nurse told SEARCHLIGHT on Thursday, hours before the bill was passed without opposition support.

“I vaccinate people all the time but still, it is their choice to come to me to be vaccinated,” she said.

Health minister, St Clair Prince said in Parliament that the amendments to the Public Health Act requires certain frontline workers to be vaccinated in the public interest.

He noted that many have been discussing the issue of rights, and whose rights will be taken away. Prince noted however, that no one seems to be discussing the other aspect; whose rights are being infringed upon as a result of “the monopoly which some people think they have on rights”.

But Moore Matthews, a member of the SVG Nurses Association and Public Service Union, is of the view that the mandate for frontline workers to take the vaccine will eventually trickle down to the rest of the population, meaning that everyone will be required to take the vaccine.
She also believes that it will then become a matter of having to take a vaccine for work if one wants to get by.

Some have expressed a willingness to walk away from their jobs, should they be required to take the vaccine. The nurse told SEARCHLIGHT that she could not say whether she can be counted among those who feel that way but that “when I get to that bridge, I will cross it”.

Thursday’s protest was attended by a large cross-section of Vincentians including members from the Public Service Union (PSU), SVG Teachers Union (SVGTU) and supporters of the New Democratic Party.

A teacher, who referred to herself only as Ms James, said she was on the picket line, not only for herself but also for her children

“…Because if the Prime Minister or whoever wants to change the health laws to what he wants to change it to, my kids will be affected in the future so I don’t want that,” she said.

“It is left to me to decide if I want to take it (the vaccine). That’s how I see it. I don’t think it’s something they should tell me that I must take, it or I should do it because they want us to…at the end of the day, it’s left to us.”

James also expressed fear that persons, including teachers, will decide to walk away from their jobs, which will have a significant negative impact on the school system, “given the fact that online teaching is already a challenge, not just for us but for the kids too as well, the learning aspect of it”.

Prior to receiving the first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said in Parliament that he was giving the matter “prayerful consideration”.

Gillian Griffith, a member of the PSU said during Thursday’s protest that some have so far had the opportunity to pray about whether they want to take the jab and that opportunity should in turn be extended to other Vincentians.

“Give people a chance to pray about it and who knows, they might be more receptive of it. When you force people and try to railroad people and you back people into a corner, they come out fighting because that’s the only thing to do. So, you communicate and give people a chance to decide and to make decisions. The more informed a person is, the better the decision they will make,” she said.

Station Sergeant Brenton Smith, the chairman of the Police Welfare Association also expressed similar sentiments at a recent press conference, where he joined with other trade union leaders to encourage members to support last week’s protest.

Joel Poyer, the PSU’s Industrial Relations Officer told SEARCHLIGHT that the country would not have been so divided on the issue, if the government did not “play politics” and exclude the Opposition in efforts to mobilise Vincentians to take the vaccine.

Poyer is of the view that no vaccine can guarantee that 100 percent of the people who take it will not be adversely affected.

And while he has no intentions of taking the COVID19 jab, he feels that those who are considering it should still have a choice.

“I personally, will prefer to get COVID and have my natural immune system fight it off. I’m willing to take that risk because 90 something per cent of the people who get COVID recover. I prefer my natural immune system to deal with it than to take something that has not been approved and has not gone through its fullness…” the PSU official said.

The Public Health (Amendment) Act (2021) was successfully passed in Parliament sometime after 3am on Friday morning without opposition support and in the absence of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who sustained a head injury while making his way to the Parliament building on foot, through a mob of angry protesters and had to be taken away for medical treatment.