Vaccines from India: Controversy erupts in Trinidad and Tobago

The whole vaccine controversy started a few weeks ago when Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley said that his government had communicated directly with India and there was no confirmation of 500,000 doses being made available to the Caribbean nations, writes Paras Ramoutar for South Asia Monitor 

Paras Ramoutar Mar 23, 2021

Even as the controversy around India's possible vaccine donation to Trinidad and Tobago rages, Basdeo Panday, who was the first person of Indian descent and first Hindu to hold the office of prime minister of the twin-island republic in the Caribbean, has said that he “has no answer as to why the nation has not received COVID-19 vaccines from India" but did not feel that there were any "racial overtones" to the issue.

The political leader of the United National Congress, Panday, who served the nation as the fifth prime minister of T&T from 1995-2001, said: “People believe that there are racial overtones or undertones in this COVID virus thing in Trinidad, I don’t know, I don’t know the facts, I really not ought to comment. I cannot comment, I don’t want to put anybody in a difficult position.”

Panday, who was speaking at the first in a series of lectures hosted by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Cooperation (MGGIC), Mt Hope, on Friday, was asked for his views on the current controversy on why Trinidad and Tobago - about 37 percent of its 1.4 million population are of Indian origin - which not received any vaccines from India, despite the fact that some Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and Barbados, have already received them.

However, he added that there were allegations of racism being put in the debate. “I don’t have an answer for that. That is a question that should be directed to the Indian High Commissioner.”

Panday said if he was prime minister he would have ensured free vaccines were available to Trinidad and Tobago.

The whole vaccine controversy started a few weeks ago when Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley said that his government had communicated directly with India and there was no confirmation of 500,000 doses being made available to the Caribbean nations.

He said that no member nation of CARICOM, which he currently chairs, had been officially told of the 500,000 COVID-19 vaccines on offer from India. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is a grouping of  20 countries - 15 member states and five associate members - and home to approximately 16 million people.

He also claimed there was an uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, describing it as a "vaccine apartheid."

Indian envoy criticised

The prime minister also targeted the Indian High Commissioner to T&T Arun Kumar Sahu about not speaking with the Indian government on providing the vaccines.

In his response, Sahu said. “I don’t think it is in the pale of diplomatic decency to personally attack a resident High Commissioner.”

Rowley in a television programme had also said he has been accused of not moving to get TT’s share of some of the 500,000 vaccines from India, adding that a lot of people either by ancestry or by political persuasion, have taken it upon themselves to become the mouthpiece of the Government of India.

Rowley also said that TT was not invited to be part of any free vaccination programme by India and said asking for "a gift" amounted to “begging.”

The former prime minister and now opposition leader, Kamla Persad Bissessar, had accused the government of not positioning the country to receive the vaccines from India. She said that “the PM is ultimately to blame for the current vaccine crisis.” 

Opposition targets PM

Persad-Bissessar, who is the first woman of Indian origin to be a prime minister of a country outside India, said that for the past five years the People’s National Movement (PNM) government has destroyed the livelihood of thousands of citizens, and now with their gross negligence are playing recklessly with the lives of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

"Incredibly, Rowley claimed to not know about India’s Vaccine Maitri program, or how our neighbouring CARICOM states came to receive generous donations of vaccines from India.  India’s Covid-19 vaccines were never a secret. Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi discussed how India could help the world via its vaccine program during his address at the 75th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 2020.  Perhaps Rowley has forgotten that he also addressed the 75th United Nations General Assembly meeting."

She was also very critical of Rowley degrading CARICOM neighbours such as Barbados by implying that they had gone for vaccines begging. “Trinidad and Tobago is facing huge problems all thanks to Dr. Rowley’s incompetent and shambolic government.”

Rowley has conceded that he was not sure as to when Trinidad and Tobago will receive its ordered batch of COVID-19 from the World Health Organisation COVAX Facility.

He noted that in his capacity as chairman of CARICOM,  the region grouping, he has written to the governments of the US, the UK, and Canadian prime ministers highlighting the vaccine clog in the region. He said so far only Canada has indicated that they are giving close attention to his concerns.

Chinese offer Sinopharm

Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to assist Trinidad and Tobago with China's Sinopharm vaccines during a virtual meeting with the prime minister. However, there has been no word as to whether Trinidad and Tobago will take up the offer.

Panday, who was speaking on the theme of his Memories of India, said there was much to be learned from India because of its scientific and technological achievements. He urged the Government of T&T and the people, to make full use of the diplomatic ties between both countries, and pointed out that India’s progress in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and information technology are reasons why T&T should seek an alliance with India.

He said that during his visit to India as prime minister in 1997, he was impressed with the country’s rich history of scientific development. 

He added that he hoped the discussion would dispel the false narrative of the country as weak and poverty-stricken, and noted negative perceptions of India may be due to ignorance or deliberately  peddled by some western countries that see the country’s growing power as a threat.

(The writer is an Indian-origin journalist based in Port of Spain, Trinidad)

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