Rowley: CARICOM Not Officially Informed of India’s Vaccine “Gift”

Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley, who is also CARICOM chair. (CMC Photo)

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Mar 19, CMC – Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Dr. Keith Rowley, says no member state had been informed officially of an offer of 500,000 coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines from India.

The Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister, said in his capacity as chairman of 15-member regional grouping, he had spoken with all the heads of governments at their last inter-sessional summit last month about the genesis of the 500,000 vaccines from India and they all confirmed that there was no documentation, but that India’s High Commissioners to the respective CARICOM countries were supposed to confer the bilateral arrangements with respective governments.

“There is nothing any body could show you in this region at CARICOM or elsewhere that there is any 500,000 vaccines available,” Rowley said

“After all this beating up, I asked all my colleagues, heads of Governments to the entire CARICOM who was in the meeting, does anybody know or has anybody seen a document or has spoken to anyone in India about 500,000 vaccines. The answer is no,” Rowley said during his programme “ A Conversation with the Prime Minister” on Thursday night.

“Not one CARICOM head in that meeting could have said ‘I’ve seen an email, I’ve seen a letter. Not the Secretariat, not a Prime Minister. Where did that come from to become such a pillar of Trinidad and Tobago conversation? It came from the CARICOM Secretariat,” Rowley told the programme that was carried live by radio and television stations here.

On February 13, the Guyana-based CARICOM Secretariat tweeted a thank you to India for the facility of 500,000 vaccines to CARICOM.

Rowley said he had asked the Secretariat about the social media posting and received a response from the CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque

Rowley said that he was informed by the Secretariat that the Indian High Commissioner in Guyana was reported in the Guyanese media as saying that the vaccines would be made available to the region and that Guyana, Antigua, St Kitts and Nevis, the countries to which that High Commissioner was accredited, would receive donations

“This appears to be the source of that story,” Rowley said, adding that the CARICOM Secretariat informed him that the arrangements were bilateral.

“And each High Commissioner would be responsible to the countries to which he or she is accredited.

“We have an ambassador here in Trinidad, if you are required, as happened in Guyana and the other small islands to know about this, then we should know about it here and there is a pathway.”

Rowley said the first time he heard about the vaccine was from local doctors whom the High Commissioner here, Arun Kumar Sahu had spoken to, adding that the diplomat “did not speak to the Government about it”.

Prime Minister Rowley said that this is second time he heard about it was from businessmen who were seeking to make arrangements to bring vaccines into the country.

The Prime Minister said Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne approached Sahu about the vaccine and the subsequent reports of the availability and was told “I don’t know.”

“Well, we then communicated directly to India to find out if this was available and if it was we are willing to participate. I can tell you there has been no confirmation of any such thing from India,” he said, adding that contact was also made with the suppliers and was told they could not take any more orders.

He said someone here had even offered to procure the vaccine for a US$1.8 million finder’s fee.

Rowley said it was also being said that Trinidad and Tobago did not access those vaccines because of where it was being made, telling the programme “all of a sudden it’s not that small countries being left out of the market and availability but it became an issue of race”.

The main opposition United National Congress (UNC) has been accusing the government of being tardy in its response to acquiring vaccines from India, but Rowley insisted that Trinidad and Tobago will acquire vaccines under the COVAX facility which is being administered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).

Rowley also hinted that Trinidad and Tobago may not be getting 33,000 doses under the COVAX facility later this month.

“We are at the stage where we were told January, then told towards the end of February, then by March 22. As I speak to you now, we have no confirmation that on March 22 we would get vaccines,” he said, noting that in his communication with WHO, the island might be getting 33,000 doses from the COVAX facility but is still on track to get the vaccines by the end of March.

Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar has accused the government of not positioning the island to receive some of the vaccines sent by India. The government later rebuked Persad Bissessar after she wrote to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Damodardas Modi, on behalf of Trinidad and Tobago requesting vaccines.

“When you go to somebody asking for a gift, you’re begging. I have been accused of not moving to get Trinidad and Tobago’s share of some 500,000 vaccines from the Government of India. A lot of people in this country either, by ancestry or by political persuasion, have taken it upon themselves to be mouthpieces for the government of India. (They’re saying) 500,000 vaccines available and Trinidad and Tobago was not moving to get it, and accusing us of all manner of evil.”

Meanwhile, Rowley has warned that Trinidad and Tobago, which has recorded 140 deaths from the virus and more than 7,000 infections, cannot afford a second lockdown as there will be no money available to fund it.

“We have pretty much used up what little wiggle room we had to fund support in the way that it was funded last year. And if you think if we getting back into that situation means we will find the resources to fund it again, I’m putting this country on notice. The resources are not available.”

Rowley said even with the best efforts of the government, Trinidad and Tobago will not find money to give 50,000 and 60,000 people paycheques at the end of the month for three months.

“Remember what happened in May in April and March of last year? Somebody has to fund that (lockdown). Because if there is no money to pay for lockdown, because a lot of people will not be going to jobs, a lot of businesses won’t be able to carry their staff and pay them for coming to work.”