Inside a conference room on a tiny Caribbean island Thursday, COVID-19 vaccine history was being made.
Cayman Islands Gov. Martyn Roper pulled up a sleeve, took a breath and stared in the direction of video cameras live streaming the moment when a nurse plunged a needle into his arm.
“This is the easiest thing I’ll do all day,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said as he waited nearby for his turn.
That the Cayman Islands, a small British dependent territory 10 times smaller than the state of Rhode Island and with a population just under 65,000, would have access to a COVID-19 vaccine before more independent and populous countries in the region such as Jamaica and the Bahamas, or even nearby Cuba, isn’t just good fortune, but a bit ironic: This may be one of the few times colonialism is paying off.
Once a dependency of Jamaica on behalf of the Crown, the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven, is among a handful of overseas territories in the Caribbean that for a change are reaping the benefits of their dependency status after years of complaining about a lack of assistance.
From the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, to the British overseas territories of Cayman and the Turks and Caicos, to the Dutch territory of Aruba, some Caribbean nationals are finding that still being tied to the “mother country” is actually a good thing during this global pandemic.
“We feel good that we have a good relationship with the mother country, the U.K.,” Cayman Health Minister Dwayne Seymour told the Miami Herald, ahead of his vaccination Thursday alongside the others in a bid to convince islanders the vaccine is safe. “We’re proud of the job that we have done, but I think we need to praise our relationship with the U.K. and being fortunate enough to have that relationship affords us to receive the vaccine so early.”
Indeed, while most countries in the Americas are frustratingly waiting to get access to a COVID-19 vaccine, smaller dependent territories are discovering that their continued ties with the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands and France are giving them a fast track to vaccination.
France on Friday began vaccinating residents of nursing home and healthcare workers in its overseas territory of Guadeloupe, a day after launching a similar effort on the island of Martinique.
Last month, the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands became the first in the Caribbean to begin deploying the vaccine after shipments from the mainland United States arrived by plane. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccine tracker, 237,650 vaccines have arrived in Puerto Rico, while 7,775 vaccines have been provided to the U.S.V.I.
On Tuesday, a day before the Netherlands began vaccinating healthcare workers in Europe, the health ministry in Aruba informed islanders that “the COVID-19 vaccine will soon be available” in the Dutch territory.
That same day, however, the wait was over for Cayman, which became the first British overseas territory in the Americas region to receive a vaccine shipment from the United Kingdom. The U.K. has led the way in quickly approving and distributing COVID-19 vaccinations.
“The country’s happy that it’s here,” Seymour said about the 9,750 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “We see this as one of the tools to bring back the world to some normalcy. And it’s not just for Cayman to take it but it’s for the rest of the world to get in line and be on pace to get back to some normalcy as quickly as possible.”
Few countries in region have COVID-19 vaccine
To date, only six countries in the Americas — the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina —have introduced the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which is tracking both the virus and vaccine distribution in the region. The U.S. is using Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Argentina is using the Sputnik V from Russia and the others are all using Pfizer-BioNTech, said Daniel Epstein, a spokesman with PAHO.
Those countries made direct deals with pharmaceutical companies.
Separately, 27 nations in the region have made down payments and signed agreements to purchase vaccines through a World Health Organization-backed global alliance known as COVAX. Ten others are eligible through the program for financial support. All are still waiting on the WHO and its Americas region office, the Pan American Health Organization, to help them procure shots.
Epstein said PAHO is providing logistical support, cold chain management, training health care workers and helping get out the word about the vaccine in the meantime.
“PAHO is working with its member states to ensure their immunizations programs are prepared to roll out COVID-19 vaccines as they receive them,” he said.
For leaders looking for relief after nearly a year of lockdowns, mounting death tolls and spreading infections in one of the world’s worst-hit regions, however, frustrations are growing as the process takes longer than some had hoped and fears about limited supplies deepen.
“We are concerned about the vaccine,” Sen. Michael Darville, a physician and co-chair of a Bahamas COVID-19 task force run by the country’s opposition, the Progressive Liberal Party, said. “We are a tourism-based economy and it’s very important for us to be ahead of the curve in order for us to rebuild our economy.”
The Bahamas is among the countries in the Caribbean hit hard by COVID-19 infections. A second wave last summer threatened to collapse the country’s health system as hospitalizations went up and health providers were forced into quarantine after getting exposed. As of Friday, the former British colony had reported a total of 7,959 cases and 175 deaths.
Although the number of newly confirmed cases are finally slowing down, Darville and his co-chair, Dr. Melissa Evans, said they are increasingly worried about a potential third wave of the virus and two new, more contagious coronavirus variants hitting the country before any vaccines arrive.
As Caymanian officials were doing their part to demonstrate that the vaccine is safe and residents should get vaccinated, Darville suggested that the Bahamas should reach out to the Cayman Islands, the Turk and Caicos Islands and perhaps some of the other British colonies that are getting access to the vaccine, to see “if we can source some of the vaccines to start an inoculation program.”
“Grand Cayman, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Bermuda as well, all of them are British colonies,” he said in a Herald interview. “The territories’ administration must have found a way to get the vaccine into those countries through the legislature in the UK and so that puts them at an advantage as far as we’re concerned.”
Vaccine brings hope after pandemic’s devastating toll
The relationship between “mother country” and colony has long been fraught with challenges.
Seven years ago then-Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer took the stage at the United Nations in New York to demand compensation for the descendants of enslaved and oppressed Africans in Europe’s former colonies. The Europeans introduced diseases that wiped out local populations.
Colonization, along with the legacy of slavery, Spencer and other Caribbean leaders have argued, had severely impaired their region’s development options while leaving a pandemic of diabetes, hypertension and other poor health outcomes.
There are five U.K. overseas territories in the Caribbean: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Together, they account for less than 155,000 people, out of about 42 million people total in the Caribbean.
In a statement provided to the Herald, U.K. officials said the government has been providing medical equipment, staff and expert advice to its 14 overseas territories across the globe during the pandemic. They also helped establish seven testing sites.
“The testing facilities and expert advice provided by the U.K. will have a long term legacy, enabling local laboratories to test for a range of viruses include COVID-19, Dengue, HIV and Zika,” the statement read.
The irony isn’t lost on someone like Martin Daly, a lawyer and columnist in Trinidad and Tobago, another independent nation that once fell under British rule.
“If only the Caricom countries had established and maintained some more effective common representation protocols, their bargaining power in the wider world would be more significant,” said Daly, referring to the 15-member Caribbean regional group that consists mostly of former British colonies that have since gone independent.
Seymour, the health minister in the Cayman Islands, credits the diligence of his chief medical officer, Dr. John Lee, for the vaccines’ arrival. Any sharing, however, seems unlikely from either Cayman or Turks and Caicos, which says it expects to have access to enough vaccine to inoculate its entire population of about 40,000 residents, but only received 9,750 doses Thursday.
Lee said while Cayman has been promised another shipment in about a week, concerns about availability and the growing demand as the United Kingdom become overwhelmed with infections, has had to factor into their own rollout. For example, he had to decide whether to divide the first shipment into two doses per person or stretch it out to vaccinate as many people as possible on the first round.
Lee first began detailed discussions about getting access to a COVID-19 vaccine with the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office in November —well before the U.K. became the first country in the world on Dec. 2, 2020, to formally approve a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, it wasn’t until when the British Airways flight landed in Grand Cayman on Tuesday that he believed the vaccine would come.
“All of the economies in the region are suffering hugely and that in itself, causes its own hardships and social challenges. We shouldn’t be minimizing that,” Lee said. “The social hardships have their own effects on communities and I think the UK recognizes that so I appreciate their early assistance.”
Cayman’s quick actions on COVID-19 pay off
The Cayman Islands’ management of the COVID-19 pandemic is among the region’s success stories. It has recorded just 359 infections and just two deaths.
The first recorded death was that of a 68-year-old Italian cruise ship passenger who was brought to the mainland for cardiac treatment and died six days later after developing a dry cough and suffering two heart attacks. The second was a returning resident who had been living in Jamaica and died shortly after arriving.
While others were rushing to reopen, the territory continued to remain close, and at one point even suspended international mail deliveries.
“When you see Cayman positive cases, all of those cases are happening only on people who are arriving travelers. It is not happening in the community,” Lee said. “I am not sure we’ve had absolutely community spread from probably around July of this year.”
Unlike other countries, Lee said the Cayman Islands screen healthy individuals for the novel coronavirus due to the fact that most of its positive cases are individuals who are asymptomatic. The strategy has given it one of the one of the highest COVID-19 per capita testing rates. It also had one of the strictest lockdowns and quarantine requirements for travelers since the onset of the virus, and one of the strictest enforcement regiments in the region.
Rule breakers face not just the threat of fines but imprisonment. The government also uses spot checks by police and geotechnology with cell phones and bracelets to track individuals who should be in quarantine. So far it appears to be paying off.
“We have had no masks, no distancing requirements for the last several months, which I think since August of last year, which has been an incredible achievement,” Lee said. “It’s a true testament to the government supporting the public health policies and very strong leadership and tied to that, a real willingness on the part of the public for Cayman to remain as covid free as we could.”
But will that willingness extend to taking the vaccine? That, officials admit, remains unclear and is therefore the reason why they all decided on Thursday to roll up their sleeves.
“Of course we will still have the same challenges as any other country in trying to convince people because of false propaganda about the vaccine not being safe,” Seymour, the health minister, said. “So we still have that uphill climb here. Not as bad as most countries but we still have our job to do in terms of encouraging people to take the vaccine. But we’ve very happy that it’s here.”
El Nuevo Herald Reporter Syra Ortiz-Blanes contributed to this report.