The Rastafarian community in Barbados is casting a wary eye on the government’s vaccination drive and redoubling its support of alternative, plant-based treatments to prevent COVID-19 infection.
Paul Simba Rock, president and founder of the Barbados-based African Heritage Foundation (AHF) and public relations officer of the Rastafarian Progressive Movement in Barbados (RPM) said the community is “totally” against vaccines on religious grounds.
The Barbados government has declared no one will be forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine. But that hasn’t instilled confidence among the 4,000 Rastafarians who make up about 1.5% of the population.
The Rastafarian movement wrote to Prime Minister Mia Mottley requesting that its members be issued certificates of exemption from vaccination requirements.
In a two-and-a-half page letter dated 18 January, 2021 and signed by Rock and RPM Secretary Empress Andrea, the movement also called on the Prime Minister to meet with them to discuss their option of using natural medicines as an alternative, including the Madagascar COVID -19 organics.
The letter read, in part: “In a recent address to the nation, you stated that it was the aim of the
government to vaccinate 60% to 70% of the population. The Rastafari community should be considered one that is least at risk due to our healthy lifestyle.” The letter argues their community should be considered for “exemption.”
Rock told CIJN Rastafarians want the government to issue documents exempting them from “vaccine passports” that might be required by other countries to travel.
Barbados’ Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Kenneth George flatly dismissed that demand.
“How can a government give exemptions to a group that is not vaccinated?” If foreign nations require proof of vaccination to enter, Dr. George said it was impossible for the Ministry of Health to declare any of its citizens exempt.
“Let’s say, for example, to travel to the United Kingdom you need to have a vaccine…if that is the case, the Rastafarian community can’t travel to the United Kingdom. There is no other way to do it,” he told CIJN.
The Chief Medical Officer expressed concern that by refusing to take the vaccine, Rastafarians have the potential to make the COVID situation worse.
“While it is within their right to do so, the good public health advice is that vaccines are the only public health intervention currently known, to stem this pandemic…the more persons we have opting out, theworse it would be for the population at large,” Dr George warned.
While the Rastafarians are refusing to take the vaccine, they are willing to be tested for the virus under some circumstances.
“People are not opposed to the testing per se.” Rock says some Rastas have taken the test but they don’t support testing solely for testing sake. Rock says they often take the test only to prove they are not positive for COVID-19.
He said even though he is hard-pressed to find any Rastafari brother or sister who has contracted COVID-19, he was not ruling out that possibility.
The Rastafarian leader has declared the group’s compliance with the government’s COVID-19 protocols at least in the wider public spaces. According to him, they observe mask-wearing and physical distancing when on the streets or in business places, but do not always wear masks within their small social gatherings.
Fear of “Vaccination Intimidation”
It is not only the Rastafarians who are taking a strong stand against the COVID-19 shot, but others, as well.
Winston Clarke, who is a Muslim and social activist, leads a petition campaign against what he calls “vaccination intimidation.” Clarke says he has already surpassed the original goal of 3,000 signatures from a cross-section of the Barbadian society that includes whites, members of church groups, non-governmental organisations and Pan Africanists.
His concerns are clear enough. If private businesses, airlines and music or sporting venues begin requiring proof of vaccination, those who refuse to get the vaccine could find themselves limited in travel abroad and locked out of normal life at home. Clarke fears that could effectively force people to accept the vaccinations.
The Rastafarians have joined forces with Clarke on this issue.
In mid-May, one of the country’s leading luxury beach resorts attracted wide public attention over a proposal by management to require unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing if they wanted to hold onto their jobs. Workers protested, branded the policy “intimidation” and the resort was forced to withdraw the policy.
As some Caribbean nations try to rebuild their tourism industries battered by the pandemic, there’s a collective concern the islands are trending toward mandatory vaccinations within specific occupations or activities.
Both Prime Minister Mottley and her Minister of Health and Wellness Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic have been adamant in various public forums that residents of the island won’t be forced to take the injection.
“Obviously we encourage everyone to take the vaccine, but it is not a mandatory kind of situation and people are free to take the vaccine if that is their desire, so we only encourage people to take the vaccine,” Minister Bostic said.
A similar position was expressed by the Prime Minister during an address to the nation back in February 2021.
Travel Restrictions in Place
The Government decreed that from May 8, 2021 all visitors to the island will be subjected to various levels of health protocol restrictions based on vaccination requirements.
For example, travelers who are fully vaccinated and come to Barbados with a valid negative COVID PCR test carried out no more than three days prior to arrival, will get a rapid PCR test done at the airport or at their approved accommodation.
While awaiting their on-island PCR test results, fully vaccinated travelers will be restricted to their approved accommodation where they are free to move around in accordance with the guidelines of the property.
As soon as they receive that negative PCR test, travelers can venture out.
Rastafarians Hope “Organic” Medicines Will Be Recognized
Rastafarian leader Simba Rock has repeated the movement’s beliefs in the efficacy of holistic medicines to protect against COVID-19.
In particular, he points to Madagascar’s COVID organics. In 2020, Madagascar launched COVID-Organics(CVO), an organic blend of herbs, claiming it can both treat and prevent COVID-19.
Amid online fanfare, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina hailed the ‘breakthrough’ for his country and its use of herbal COVID-19 remedies.
“We are proud to inaugurate Pharmalagasy, the first national pharmaceutical factory which aims to conquer the African continent through the manufacture of non-chemical herbal medicine,” President Rajoelina said in a series of tweets.
The celebration was short-lived. In May 2021 the government announced Madagascar has been closed to all commercial and private air traffic amid what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control depicted as a Level 4 outbreak of COVID-19.
The Madagascar government has been importing vaccines to try to control the situation.
Barbados Says “No”
The Barbados government isn’t debating the efficacy of organic treatments. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kenneth George dismissed any chance of the government sanctioning the use of herbal medicines at this stage for the treatment of the virus.
“The Ministry of Health does not subscribe to herbal treatments for COVID,” Dr. George told CIJN. “We continue to work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international organisations to give guidance in this area. If at any point in time herbs do come up in a different place and are sanctioned by the appropriate authority, consideration will be given…but at this point in time, the answer to that question is no.”
The Rastafarians are not giving up hope. But they concede their trust in natural remedies must be proven in full clinical trials to gain acceptance.
The issue of “vaccination intimidation” is another matter. The concerns voiced on this island are reflected in other Caribbean nations and around the world. The Rastafarians are a colorful and active community that punches above its weight in Barbados. Their influence will be one of the factors that determines the success of the government’s vaccination drive.