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Dispatch From Jamaica: Vaccines Work, Then and Now

August 6, 2021

A conversation with Gail Hoad, a longtime journalist turned communication for development specialist, who shares how the coronavirus pandemic has affected her family, her job and day-to-day life in the Caribbean island country where she grew up and now works with UNICEF supporting programs for vulnerable children. "A lot has changed in 39 years, but one thing hasn’t," Hoad says. "Vaccines are still protecting children and adults from serious diseases."

For UNICEF Jamaica consultant Gail Hoad, helping her mother get the COVID-19 vaccine in June 2021 brought back memories of her own experience as a child being vaccinated for polio during an outbreak in 1982. UNICEF USA reached out to Hoad for more insight into vaccine hesitancy in Jamaica and other challenges she is tackling in her role as a communications specialist. 

How are people in Jamaica faring these days?

GAIL HOAD: The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy for many Jamaican families, but we count our blessings. My mum got her second shot of the COVID vaccine on June 13. As a senior citizen she is among the most vulnerable, and COVID-19 literally put much of her life on hold.

Primary school students continued with their studies remotely in Westmoreland parish, Jamaica, during the coronavirus pandemic with help from UNICEF. © UNICEF/UN0352054/Makyn

Seniors were told to stay home so I started doing her grocery shopping. Places of worship were closed, and church, a big part of her life, was only accessible online. A former teacher, she still loves working with children as part of an organization serving girls. That was disrupted. It took time for her to accept restrictions on supermarket trips. It took less time to adapt to meetings and church on Zoom.

At the start of the pandemic, however, it took her longer to get used to seeing everyone in masks. She told me it looked sad, pathetic. Seeing the whole world visibly vulnerable was depressing to a 72-year-old with an “Energizer Bunny” attitude.

Some of those early restrictions have been lifted. But as the pandemic continues and new variants of COVID-19 emerge, we know that restrictions may be re-introduced or tightened. Face-to-face school was interrupted for children, and many businesses have been affected by the pandemic. It has been a challenging time for Jamaicans.

Jamaica's Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Christopher Tufton, middle, with UNICEF's representative in Jamaica Mariko Kagoshima, right, and Dr. Bernadette Theodore-Gandi, left, welcome the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX Facility in March 2021. @ Ross Sheil for UNICEF

What is the general attitude in Jamaica around getting vaccinated?

GAIL HOAD: Before my mum got the COVID-19 shot, we talked honestly about the vaccine. Her sister in the U.S. was the first family member to get the vaccine. In Jamaica, a sister who is a nurse was among those first to get it. Still there were fears, concerns, hesitation. So much was unknown.

Eventually we decided it was wisest to take any protection science offered. A life of lockdown was not an option for my mother! But it wasn't just about that. As we all know, vaccinating older people and those on the front lines such as our doctors, nurses and security force officers are important first steps in protecting the entire population — including children who are too young to be vaccinated yet themselves.

Vaccinating older people and those on the front lines such as our doctors, nurses and security force officers are important first steps in protecting the entire population — including children who are too young to be vaccinated yet themselves.

Our first batch of vaccine doses were delivered through COVAX in mid March. We listened religiously to the Health Ministry’s updates to hear when her age group became eligible for the jab. Once it was announced, I went online immediately to register her.

As she went to get her first shot, a memory of us getting polio vaccines as a family came to mind. I hunted down a 39-year-old photograph (below) that had been published in my late father's company newsletter, and posted about the memory on Facebook.

Gail Hoad, top left in pigtails and ribbons, looks on as her brother receives the oral polio vaccine during Jamaica's national immunization campaign in 1982, in a photo published by Alcan Jamaica, Hoad's late father’s employer, in the company newsletter. The campaign was launched after new cases of polio were detected in the country. "Everyone got vaccinated that day," Hoad recalls. "The private sector worked alongside the public health system to ensure we were all safe." © Photo provided by Gail Hoad

That's amazing that you still have that photo. Why were you all getting vaccinated at the same time?

GAIL HOAD: It was 1982 and we were all getting vaccinated against polio as there had been an outbreak that year. Jamaica’s last case of polio before that outbreak was in 1969 so there hadn’t been any cases for twelve years! Apparently though, immunization of children against this disease had not remained consistent. With no new cases throughout the 1970s, we may have just stopped worrying so much about polio. When it came back, the country launched an emergency immunization campaign.

I think that 1982 outbreak showed everybody how important it was to take preventative action, that even though one country eliminates polio, until it is eradicated worldwide — and we're getting close — you need to keep immunizing.

The day we all went to get our polio vaccines, our mum dressed us up and took the family to our parish capital, Mandeville, to make sure we were protected against this deadly virus. I remembered this recently when we returned the favor, registering her online for the COVID-19 vaccine and watching her drive off to get her first dose, again right in Mandeville.

A lot has changed in 39 years, but one thing hasn’t: vaccines are still protecting children and adults from serious diseases.

After UNICEF Jamaica shared my post, many other Jamaicans posted comments sharing similar memories from 1982. Some remembered the doctor who gave us our polio drops. Others in the capital, Kingston, recalled being transported by the state-run bus service to the National Arena for their vaccination.

How does this compare to present day?

GAIL HOAD: Our family is fortunate. Mum and her siblings are all vaccinated against COVID-19. There are, however, lots of seniors who don’t have access to technology to get registered. Others need help to get to vaccination sites. Some need sound information and reassurance from peers, younger relatives and the authorities about the vaccine.

Recently Jamaica received additional supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine — doses donated by the UK government — and the country expanded immunization to anyone 18 years and older. But even among younger folks there are fears and concerns that we must understand and address if we are to get as many people as possible to benefit from the protection that the vaccine offers.

And as a developing country, we still worry whether we will have adequate supplies of the vaccine for our vulnerable populations. We hope children will be able to return to physical school safely, even as we face a possible third wave of COVID. The world is always changing, but collaboration at global, national and local levels, support within homes and communities, and responsive health systems remain essential to defeat this new threat to young and old in our human family.

What is UNICEF doing on the ground to support COVID-19 vaccinations in Jamaica?

GAIL HOAD: When my mom got vaccinated, the nurse had her tablet and she took down all the information using a digital tracking software called CommCare. UNICEF helped put that system in place. The Ministry of Health can now track the progress of vaccination efforts in real time, all across the country. They're using CommCare to collect and aggregate vaccination data by parish and region; that allows for more efficient planning and decision-making all around. 

In June, health workers in Jamaica started using CommCare, a digital tracking system installed by UNICEF, to record vaccination data and improve real-time decision-making around emergency immunization efforts. © Photo courtesy of Gail Hoad

We also encourage and support our Health Ministry to get as much information as possible from communities to improve vaccine uptake as more COVID-19 vaccine doses become available. We had heard, for example, that uptake among those aged 60 and older wasn't as high as was anticipated. It is important to find out why. In some cases it may be vaccine hesitancy, but it may also be a matter of not knowing where to go, or when, or knowing and not being able to get there. For many seniors, churches are an important source of information or support, but with restrictions on physical gatherings they may be cut off from that source. How do we work with institutions like the church to get accurate and credible information out?

As we expand vaccines to other groups, it is also important to understand what people know and feel about COVID-19 and the vaccine, how this affects their decisions about getting vaccinated, and to identify what different people need in order to make sound decisions.

My job as a C4D specialist is to work with the UNICEF team and with our other partners to understand people's knowledge, behaviors and attitudes around particular issues and provide them with what they need to make fully informed decisions. And so that's what I'm trying to do. 

Child abuse: If you see it, if you hear it, report it — a public service announcement developed for release during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the ongoing EU-supported Spotlight campaign to end violence against girls and women. 

You also work with UNICEF Jamaica to combat violence against children. 

GAIL HOAD: Yes. I joined UNICEF in April 2020 — just as the pandemic hit — to support the EU-UN Spotlight initiative, which combats violence against women and girls, so that is my primary role. We know that violence against children and adolescents and violence against women — gender-based violence (GBV) — is on the rise because of this pandemic, here and in many other countries, because of lockdowns, loss of livelihoods, schools being closed and with restricted access to sources of support for victims. 

Coronavirus-related school closures forced millions of kids like Joel, above in Jamaica's Westmoreland parish, to switch to remote learning at home. The lockdowns have been devastating for children's mental health, nutrition and overall well-being. The most vulnerable kids — for whom school is also a safety net and support system — face higher risks of gender-based violence, exploitation and abuse. UNICEF continues to urge governments to make reopening schools a priority. © UNICEF/UN0352088/Makyn

As a C4D specialist, I look for ways to leverage communication to understand this complex issue of GBV and to engage various stakeholders in the response. This has included getting data from communities to understand how they see the rise in GBV and child abuse in order to inform messages to make sure people know how to report incidents of violence or abuse and how to get support, for themselves or for others.

We learned that it is important not just to encourage young people and communities but also to target our first responders — teachers and health workers — with our messaging. They are often the first ones who notice that something is wrong. We want to remind them of their important role in helping women and children who are victims of violence and abuse, because we know so many of them are overworked and overwhelmed as a result of this pandemic.

Duty bearers: Children need your protection now more than ever — another PSA developed by UNICEF Jamaica under the Spotlight program and released in October 2020 to counter the increased risk of violence against children due to pandemic lockdowns.

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Top photo: Gail Hoad, a communications consultant with UNICEF Jamaica, left, with her mum holding her vaccination card on COVID-19 vaccination day in Manchester parish, June 13, 2021. © Photo courtesy of Gail Hoad