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US Congressman touts aggressive vaccine diplomacy to counter China’s influence in Caribbean

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 June 2021, 20:31 by Denis Chabrol

Barbara Feinstein

A United States (US) Congressman is interested in aggressively pushing American-made vaccines in the Caribbean , in a move aimed at countering China’s influence in the region where thousands of Chinese jabs have been delivered directly to countries.

Chairman of the US Senate sub-committee on the Western Hemisphere, Congressman Albio Sires made it clear that he preferred to see the vaccines shipped to individual Caribbean countries instead of going through the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM)  Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) or the COVAX facility that has been set up to guarantee fair and equitable access of the jabs.

“Here’s what I have a problem with . You have China going in and giving directly to these islands the vaccine. They take all the credit. Why can’t we do the same thing and take the credit instead of giving it to COVAX or CARICOM. They may be great organisations but I’m not looking to build those organisations. I’m looking to build our position on the  Caribbean and our position in the Caribbean should be that we should send the vaccines directly to these people. Let them know that it’s the United States that is helping,” he told a hearing on “the Biden Administration’s efforts to deepen U.S. engagement in the Caribbean” that coincided with US Caribbean Month 2021.

Unofficial figures show that China has donated more than 165 million doses of Chinese-made jabs accompanied by an intense public relations campaign.

Albio Sires

Mr. Sires said he was opposed to the US government working with regional organisations to deliver the jabs to Caribbean nations. “The administration probably wants to build up COVAX or whatever but I’m not interested in doing that. I wish the administration would directly do that and we have planes; we do things better than most people, Our vaccine is the best vaccine,” he said. A clearly agitated Mr. Sires admitting that he was bothered by the US government’s approach to providing the  Caribbean with the COVID-19 vaccines, said the US should be taking its jabs directly to countries.

Acting Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator within USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), Barbara Feinstein agreed that Mr. Sires’ position was “very well founded in terms of the United States being able to get the credit in terms of the generosity for these vaccines.” She sought to assure the subcommittee on the West Hemisphere that the White House was taking steps to ensure that the US’ role and image are prominent in the process. “I know the White House is very focused on communication strategies that are tailored to each donation that goes out to ensure that it is very clear to the people of those countries that this donation is coming from the United States government. In addition, all of the vaccines that are going through GAVI-COVAX will be branded with the American flag on their as a further indication that this is coming from the United States,” Ms. Feinstein said in her testimony.

The US Senate sub-committee heard that the US plans to distribute at least six million doses of American-made COVID-19 vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean and another 14 million doses would distributed through COVAX.  Another senior USAID official said the US would ensure there is  well-planned safe, and equitable access to the American-made jabs that would be donated. “We are trying to make sure that we can ship them in a way that they can arrive safely and that they maintain their effectiveness since, as was pointed our earlier, the US does produce the most effective vaccines in the world,” Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Laura Lochman said.  She added that USAID was assisting recipient countries with facilities to store the vaccines properly.  The allocation would be done by June and the actual distribution is expected to begin  shortly after, Feinstein added.