What's behind mistrust of Covid vaccines in the French Caribbean?

·5-min read

Soaring Covid infections in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe – where vaccination rates are low –come amid deep distrust of the government, and the circulation of misinformation that has left many people afraid of the jab. RFI explores why vaccine-scepticism in the French Caribbean is so entrenched.

With hospitals saturated and seriously ill people being evacuated to the mainland, the health crisis in Martinique and Guadeloupe has been described as "catastrophic".

Here, infection rates are the highest in France, lagging far behind the French national average.

In Martinique 22 percent of people have received a first dose, rising to 31 percent in neighbouring Guadeloupe. It's a paltry figure compared with nearly 70 percent of the French population.

“People in intensive care are unvaccinated; the people dying from Covid-19 are not vaccinated,” Professor Serge Romana, who is in daily contact with health workers on the islands, told RFI.

Anti-vaxx culture?

Traditional medicine is popular in the French Caribbean, where plants such as lion's ear, blue porterweed, mountain mint and sage are used to treat everything from stress and high blood pressure to respiratory problems and flu.

There's a strong belief plants can protect against the coronavirus by boosting natural immunity.

Sales of Virapic, a syrup based on the local jackass bitters herb, have rocketed since it was presented in February as a "miracle cure" for Covid.

“I don’t want to stigmatise but the mistrust over vaccines is cultural,” said French Overseas Minister Sebastian Lecornu, who led a team of 300 medical reinforcements to the islands last week.

Guadeloupe and Martinique were among the first French departments to file complaints against regional health authorities who refused to provide supplies of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which has proven ineffective in treating Covid.

The preference for homegrown solutions, however, reflects a much deeper mistrust in the government’s ability to deal with health crises – dating back to the chlordecone scandal that rocked the French West Indies between 1972 and 1993.

A pesticide, chlordecone was used to grow bananas in Guadeloupe and Martinique long after it was banned in mainland France over its impact on human health and the environment.

A 2018 study by public health agency Santé Publique France showed that almost everyone living on the islands had chlordecone in their blood. A number of court cases are ongoing.

“They told us it was OK to drink the water, and we found out later the state had lied to us,” a caller from Guadeloupe recently told a public radio phone-in. “How can you expect us to trust the government?”

Wariness of state institutions

The scandal further soured a history of poor relations between local politicians and central government, with some Caribbean leaders actively campaigning against Covid vaccines.

“Not getting vaccinated has become something of a cause for nationalists and patriots,” Dr Gerard Cotellon, head of Guadeloupe’s University Hospital, told RFI. “They're pushing Guadeloupian pharmacology.”

In late July, authorities in Martinique voted massively against extending use of the Covid "health pass" – a document required in French restaurants and other public places to prove a person has been vaccinated or has sufficient virus immunity.

Both Martinique and Guadeloupe have seen big demonstrations against the pass and compulsory vaccination for health workers.

Fake news

The climate of mistrust has allowed conspiracy theories to flourish on the internet and social media.

When Jacob Desvarrieux, lead singer of the Guadeloupian band Kassav, recently died of Covid despite having received three vaccination doses, rumours were rife that it was possible to die from a vaccine overdose.

“It’s not very reassuring; the vaccine is meant to protect vulnerable people,” local woman Lyssandre told FranceInfo radio.

Desvarrieux was left immuno-compromised after a liver transplant, and Covid vaccines are known to be less effective on such patients.

In Martinique, a 40-year-old woman showed RFI a video of a man in a white coat pointing to graphs claiming that Covid-19 was manufactured in France by inserting four sequences of the HIV virus into RNA genetic material.

She said she was concerned about having a vaccine that could give her Aids.

“Fake news explains the very low vaccination take-up here,” says Christian Rapha, biologist and mayor of Saint-Pierre, a town in Martinique.

“It’s not about culture or illiteracy; people are worried and ask themselves questions.”

Pandemic late to arrive

Martinique and Guadeloupe were largely spared the pandemic until recently, with information on the virus and the benefits of vaccination slow to arrive.

“The vaccination campaign is poorly understood and is sometimes seen as a kind of sentence handed down from Paris,” says RFI’s Pierre Olivier, who recently reported from the islands.

Doctors and scientists say the vaccination campaign in the French Caribbean needs to be independent of politicians if it is to gain people's trust.

“We’re organising a kind of war machine – a wide information enterprise based on science," says Dr Romana.

He and others have ramped up appearances on local and national media, and organised webinars and meetings to answer questions about the virus.

The message is to show people that apart from lockdown, there’s no other tried and tested way to fight Covid-19 but vaccination, Romana says.

Driven by fear

France's Health Ministry has said that vaccinations rate have shot up following Lecornu’s visit earlier this month, and his appeal for people to get the jab.

With 346 deaths in Guadeloupe and 243 in Martinique, fear of dying is beginning to outweigh fear of the vaccine.

“People are simply afraid,” a pharmacist in Fort-de-France, Martinique, told FranceInfo. “Even doctors who didn’t trust the vaccine now want to be vaccinated.”

Martinique’s Council of the Order of Physicians, a regulatory body, this week warned that doctors who publicly express anti-vaccine views will face disciplinary action including the threat of being "struck off”.

Such opinions were in violation of the code of medical ethics, said the council’s president, Raymond Hélénon.

“It’s not healthy. Doctors must speak with one voice.”

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