Vaccination blues: how T&T’s ‘parallel information system’ is failing its most vulnerable people

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“[…] ‘No, no. Everybody going. My friend took her mother and they give him a vaccine one time and he young’… ‘I just take a chance when they set up in the paddock in the Savanna and it was around 5 in the afternoon and they just take my whole family. They have extra then and they have to use it up.’

“[…] These are the conversations happening in chat rooms and galleries and by WhatsApp. Never has there been a people prouder of utterly evading even the paltry excuse for a system we have…”

In the following guest column, Anu Lakhan captures an unsuccessful visit to the St Joseph Enhanced Health Centre by two elderly ladies who are trying to get their Covid-19 vaccines:

Photo: Scores of Trinbagonians attempt to get their Covid-19 vaccines by a health centre.
(via CNC3)

There are two stories here: one is a human story; the other, a more human story. 

The human story is about the failures and fractures in the systems designed, interpreted and implemented by people for communities and situations they seem not to understand. The other story, the more human one—or maybe it’s one about humanity—is about the people who, in the end, are failed by these systems.

It’s just after 6.30am when two older ladies arrive at the St Joseph Enhanced Health Centre. They join a group of ten other early risers who have come well in advance of opening hours to get their Covid-19 vaccines. This is advertised as a walk-in service. The day before, staff at the facility told vaccine-hopefuls that anyone could come—no age restrictions, no proof of underlying conditions, no strings to be pulled. 

Be there before 8am, get in the line and you’ll get your shot. But that was on Monday. The previous day. And if you’ve been at all aware of what has been happening at health facilities around the country, the only thing that is certain is that no predictable pattern or order can be gleaned from one day to the next.

The older ladies sit quietly and chat. They are safely distanced from others, which is a kind of miracle in the haphazard strewing of chairs and the odd table under the small tent facing the clinic’s entrance. 

Photo: An elderly woman in Penal.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/Wired868)

By 7am there are at least 50 people waiting and at least one man is aggressive, bordering on volatile. Numbers were not given out at the entrance or at any other point. The first batch of people, the ones who’d arrived around 6ish or before, had kept track of the order in which they’d arrived and that seemed fair. When the numbers rose, it was harder to be sure about the new-comers. 

Aggressive Man invokes a familiar logic: there were no official numbers, ergo, there were no numbers at all. When a few of the early batch form a line leading to the clinic door, Aggressive Man, shoves in front and gets loud. Someone goes to ask for a guard. 

Before 7.30am there is the mayhem now referred to as ‘no social distancing’. A tight line is doubling up on itself. And no one at all, security or nurse or administrative personnel, has come forward to say anything to now over 100 people in an increasingly Covid-unsafe setting.

Over the past couple of weeks a parallel information system has been issuing statements such as:

‘Go to Morvant. Real people going to the clinic there and getting through fast.’

‘If Morvant don’t have, go by Barataria. Or Diego, Diego people say it nearly empty there.’

‘Go late. Plenty people who have appointments not going and they have extra.’

Photo: Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh (left) and CMO Dr Roshan Parasram.

But these are for the over-60s, yes? That’s what the NWRHA website and those who speak on the website’s behalf are saying. From the way information is dispensed it is clear that the website is the authority and not, say, a person like a minister or medical head.

Were it not for the parallel information system and those who enable the truth of it, no one under-60 should even have thought about getting vaccinated.

‘No, no. Everybody going. My friend took her mother and they give him a vaccine one time and he young.’

‘I just take a chance when they set up in the paddock in the Savanna and it was around 5 in the afternoon and they just take my whole family. They have extra then and they have to use it up.’

By this reasoning it feels almost like a responsibility to get into a small mob to get one of the ‘extra vaccines’ so the country’s limited resources are not wasted. These are the conversations happening in chat rooms and galleries and by WhatsApp.

Photo: The AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
(via Skynews)

Never has there been a people prouder of utterly evading even the paltry excuse for a system we have. ‘We get through.’ That’s really how we win.

We do not have a culture of order. But then, if order is not asked for from the top, why should we give it?

At minutes past 8am, a group of guards arrive and attempt to create ‘social distance’ and stop people from pushing. There’s nothing resembling the kind of space needed but it’s better than before.

A nurse emerges and, in series of flutters: assures everyone they will be vaccinated; hands out forms; refuses to give out forms because of the encroaching pandemonium; returns to distributing forms; accepts filled-in forms. And then, less than half an hour later, tells everyone to go home. 

Only people with appointments will be seen. The guards echo this information up and down the lines. 

The crowd is bunched up at the face of the entrance straining to hear. The kind of melee that involves a combination of those trying to stay and those trying to leave has taken hold. 

Photo: Two elderly women.

Off to the side, behind one crowd, barely audible, the two older ladies who’d been there since 6.30am are holding out their forms asking no one in particular who they should give them to and what they were expected to do next. 

These are the people we are failing and who will continue to be vulnerable. These are the ones we need to get this right for. 

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About Anu Lakhan

Anu Lakhan
Anu Lakhan is a writer and editor generally preoccupied with food, and books. And short sentences.

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  1. This is why we complain about the healthcare system on the ground and then some people vex because we should just be grateful – the people at that facility are in charge of how they interact with the public and how they plan their activities as needed. They knew they had vaccines to distribute and at least one or two of them knew that the day before they said something about everyone gets vaccinated, with or without an appointment…and even if they didn’t know, couldn’t they have informed the people at the start of the day and intermittently thereafter so that no one waits and congregates, expecting to get a vaccine only to be turned away? Wouldn’t that have been the smart thing to do, the sane thing to do, the safe thing to do and the kindest thing to do? Do they simply not care that people end up congregating (which contributes to the risk of more front line workers being stressed out by increasing cases) because they have no number system or even a page for people to write down names so they know who came first? (If they want some paper, ask!) If they cared, they would do better since it’s not that difficult to implement some kind of system where people know what to expect. And if they need volunteers to help, they should say so, but they don’t so they clearly can handle their stories, except that they refuse to…and that is unacceptable. They can do better…heaven only knows why they simply care not to. That’s why when someone says let’s be grateful to our frontline workers, I take that with a grain of salt. I am still trying to find information on the MOH website that tells me where the schedule is for the mass vaccination site, because clearly they are not vaccinating every day…and when my dad went today, they told him they would post the schedule on Facebook. There is not even a mention of the mass vaccination site on the MOH facebook so where exactly on Facebook is one supposed to go? If Newsday had not posted a pic of the whatsapp numbers I wouldn’t even know the numbers, and this I only found out today. The people managing the MOH website and Facebook clearly are sitting on their laurels content to post numbers daily and not keep sharing the vital information the public needs to know to get the vaccinations done efficiently. Why? Apparently efficiency is not a goal…and don’t get it twisted, I am not blaming the Minister or the PM or the CMO, I am blaming the people who are responsible for sharing the information and planning the on the ground activities required for vaccinations to be handled efficiently – they are the ones who are not doing their jobs properly.

  2. Last week an 80 year old uncle picked up his 85 year old brother and headed for the Savannah, he had an appointment but his brother didn’t. He got there, explained the situation and they did NOT vaccinate his elder brother., he did get his vaccine! That is utterly absurd!!

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