Jamaica’s COVID-19 Strategy Raises Mistrust Among Rastafarians

Kingston, Jamaica


Vaccines Arrive at Norman Manley International Airport, Jamaica Photo by Michael Sloley

“I will give you the figure off the top of my head: ZERO!”

That was the reply of a health worker in one of Jamaica’s vaccine sites when asked how many Rastafarians had come to her to get a shot.  But she says she still hopes Rastafari elders will lead the way as Jamaica’s phased vaccine rollout continues.

Jamaica received its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in March, about a year after the virus arrived on the island.  The World Health Organization tracks vaccine distribution on the island.

WHO Dashboard for Jamaica

But while Jamaica’s vaccine blitz exceeded the government’s targets with hundreds of people being turned away from vaccine sites, Prime Minister Andrew Holness is still urging every Jamaican to take the vaccine.

Prime Minister Holness has gone on record saying vaccinations are critical for reopening the economy. “What would happen to Jamaica if we are considered a country that has not yet reached the threshold of vaccinations to be the destination of travel that we once were? What would happen if the world returns [to normal] and we are not ready?” he asked during a televised interview.

The Prime Minister added there should be very little reluctance among citizens because “unlike other countries, [Jamaica has] a very strong history of vaccination”. 

Members of Jamaica’s Rastafari movement strongly disagree. 

Historical Mistrust

Member of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Committee (RCGC), Ras Ika said, “well if you check the history of Rastafari oppression in this country, from Pinnacle to Coral Gardens yuh find seh it hard fi trust d’ government”, referring to two of what Rastafari consider to be the most extreme examples of abuse of power – the Pinnacle raid in St. Catherine in 1954  and the Coral Gardens atrocity in Montego Bay in 1963

“Rastafari have been opposed, oppressed, ostracized and murdered in their unrelenting forays at decolonization,” Dr. Jahlani Niaah told CIJN.  He is Coordinator of the Rastafari Studies Centre at the University of the West Indies Mona (UWI Mona) and member of the School of the Sacrament University (SOSACRU).

Dr Niaah also said the lack of dialogue with the government caused even greater mistrust in the Rastafari community. 

“It makes Rastafari’s rhetoric of Babylon more so palpable that all of our worst fears are converged in this moment,” he said. Dr Niaah is also a member of the Nyabinghi mansion of Rastafari. Mansions are like sects or denominations in other religions.

Dr. Jahlani Niaah outlines the concerns of Jamaica’s Rastafari community about the government’s COVID-19 policies.

Some Rastafari communities say they have been preparing for events like the COVID-19 pandemic for more than 20 years. 

Prophecies, Conspiracies and Pepsi Bottles in the Clouds

Situated in the Blue Mountains since 1997, roughly 3500 feet above sea level, the Haile Selassie School of Vision is the physical home, school, farm and place of worship for more than 100 of its devotees. Priest Dermot Fagan, who heads up the school gladly shares his beliefs with the news media and anyone who will listen

In an interview with CIJN, Priest Dermot Fagan poured out his Rastafarian beliefs. “We use the moment to let the people know by the will of the Emperor [Haile Selassie] that the microchip will arrive, and it will be the Revelation mark of the beast. And that is really the main purpose of School of Vision.

Priest Fagan describes the motivation and purpose of the Haile Selassie School of Vision

Priest Fagan was referring to biblical prophecy:

“He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” Revelation 13:16-17

Priest Fagan warns the Jamaican government’s COVID-19 restrictions are a test run for something he insists may be far more sinister 

“If you without mask, you not welcome in the people business place. You have to be social distanced; you have to be sanitized. All of these here now is just the sorcery that Lucifer is using now to have a full control over the people.” 

Priest Fagan believes the COVID-19 restrictions are warning signs of biblical  disaster.

Priest Fagan eagerly shares a vision he says came to him when Jamaica received its first batch of the vaccine in March. 

“After it was unleashed, I saw a man roun’ a computer an’ like him was there for an eternity…I saw also a Pepsi bottle in the cloud. Out of all the plastic bottles, the only one that carry the red, white and blue ball is the Pepsi bottle…. The Pepsi ball is round, that is globalism. The red, white and blue belongs to England, if you look at the flag, and the Americans as they’re called – the white supremacists.”

Priest Fagan describes his vision as proof of an intricate plot of world domination.

Dr Niaah noted the varying COVID-19 protocols in countries around the world provides fodder for conspiracy theories. 

Dr Niaah says the different approaches to handling COVID-19 information and protocols makes it easy for several theories to emerge.

“The leaders clearly have better intelligence than the rest of the population. And with that better intelligence we have not necessarily seen the most sound principles. So, the whole Bill Gates, chip, mark of the beast, all of that is only brought into more focus by people who can’t understand why people have got so out of control” he said.

Priest Fagan denied believing in any conspiracy theories but points to the rapid rollout as evidence to support his mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccine. “If we use our sense without people telling you what to do, and it is all over YouTube, there has never been a vaccine prepared so hastily,” he pointed out.

The COVID-19 vaccine is, in fact. the fastest vaccine ever manufactured and approved. Medical experts say the public needs reliable information to overcome this “vaccine hesitancy.” 

Priest Fagan added that since some doctors have not yet taken the vaccine, he’s suspicious of its safety.  

Fundamental Rights and Freedoms

In correspondence with one of the advisors to the Ethiopian Crown Council, Dr Michael Barnett, Priest Fagan said there are members of the Rastafari who do not adhere so strictly to the scriptures but still will not take the vaccine. He described himself as a “self-built Rasta man” unaffiliated with any of the formal mansions (sects) of Rastafari.

“Many Rastafari do not take vaccines period, as it goes against the naturalistic lifestyle. There have been court and legal battles fought to waive vaccination requirements for the children of Rastafari parents,” Dr. Barnett noted.

According to Ras Ika, some of those cases have been fought in local courts by the now disbarred Rastafari lawyer, Miguel Lorne. “If it get to the point where I ‘n’ I (we) need vaccination passport an’ dem supm deh then I n I will have to agitate for some form of exemption on religious grounds” he added. 

Rastafari’s beliefs and practices are protected under Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act of 2011.

But Dr Niaah said even before 2011 there were provisions to prevent discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs when it comes to vaccines. “You ultimately should not be barred from public institutions based on your defense of your human rights, which would include the decision to not be vaccinated,” he said.

Dr Niaah describes how religious views, including on vaccinations, is protected by Jamaica’s Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act.

While expressing concern for the spread of misinformation among the Jamaican population, Prime Minister Holness said that the government is not making vaccination mandatory. But he did say that there were legal grounds to do so, especially in the case of children. 

The vaccine is not the only COVID-19 related concern among Rastafari. 

“Authoritarianism is said to have increased around the world. And we’ve seen it here. Police scraping up people and tellin’ dem dem dissin’ the Prime Minister,” Dr Niaah said. (A reference to a Pastor arrested for declaring the Prime Minister was going to die for placing restrictions on church gatherings.)

Dr Niaah believes that there should have been more discussion between the government and the public.

Dire Warnings of What Lies Ahead

Priest Fagan predicted the worst is yet to come. He cautions that COVID-19 creates space for unseen hands, sinister conspiracies and the rise of authoritarianism.  He insists he’s ready for that and so are his congregants. After all, he’s taken Biblical prophecies more seriously than most.

In the meantime, he points out that they do take seriously some of the government’s pandemic protocols like social distancing, washing hands and avoiding handshakes.  As evidence, he notes, no one among his followers has gotten the virus.

As leader of the School of Vision, he is openly opposed to vaccines but claims he wouldn’t prevent even his followers from getting the shot.  

“I wouldn’t prevent them,” he told CIJN. “I don’t have that authority but what we try to do is give them that necessary warning. No, it wouldn’t be right to exercise that draconian power on a free people.”

School of Vision leader Priest Fagan says he would not prevent members of his community from getting COVID vaccine.

For Priest Fagan, it’s strategic. It’s like the lyrics to Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler,” he told us.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

In a nation that reveres the legacy of Bob Marley, ‘The Gambler’ seems an odd sounding board for Rastafarian COVID-19 strategies.  But between the historic struggles with power, their holistic lifestyle and their own religious beliefs, members of the Jamaican Rastafari community believe that they are playing their cards right when it comes to the COVID-19 protocols and the vaccine. 

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