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British Ambassador Charles Garrett about aconite, vaccination and fakes

At least 1,250,000 doses of the vaccine of the Chinese Sinopharm company were delivered to Kyrgyzstan. Vaccination centers were opened not only in medical institutions, but also in large shopping centers and markets. Kyrgyzstanis get vaccinated willingly. However, there are still doubters.

In an interview with 24.kg news agency, the British Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Kyrgyzstan Charles Garrett told how the UK fought against vaccination fakes and managed to return usual pre-coronavirus life to its citizens.

— You were one of the first who got vaccinated. How did you come through it? Why did you decide to get vaccinated?

— Yes, I received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I had no side effects other than mild pain in my arm at the injection site during the day.

I decided to accept the vaccination offer for three reasons. First, this, combined with masks, distancing and other recommended measures, is the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19. Secondly, mass vaccination is the only way to protect society, prevent death from coronavirus and related diseases. Third, vaccination will help to return to normal economic and social life faster.

Vaccination is a win-win: you protect yourself, and the whole society benefits from it.

Charles Garrett

I have isolated myself for the past two weeks as I contracted the coronavirus, but had a mild form of illness. This means that none of the vaccines gives 100 percent guarantee that you won’t get infected at all, but if you contract COVID-19 after vaccination, your symptoms and consequences will be less severe.

 Kyrgyzstan takes one of the last places in terms of vaccination. Why, in your opinion, this is happening?

— In fact, Kyrgyzstan is not in the last place, it pleases. But you’re right, the vaccination process is going very slowly. According to the latest figures from the Financial Times vaccination tracking system, 1.5 percent of the population received one dose, and only 1.1 percent received both doses. Compare with Kazakhstan, where 20.8 percent received the first dose of the vaccine and 12 percent — both of them.

Launching a mass vaccination program is a complex undertaking. The government quite correctly launched vaccination not only in polyclinics, but also in public spaces, so it will be easier to cover more people.

The country, of course, must arrange supply of the required amount of the vaccine, ensure storage and proper distribution.

For example, in the UK, the government has worked closely with pharmaceutical companies both to support vaccine research and development and to ensure timely supplies since WHO approval. This was the first and key step — to ensure the required quantity. The government has also worked with the National Health Service (NHS) to create clinics to vaccinate citizens, not only in hospitals and doctors’ offices, but also in public buildings such as churches and gyms. The army also helps.

I think that good and correct communication of the government with the population, based on science, has become a key factor in attracting citizens to participation in vaccination.

Charles Garrett

Throughout the pandemic, and even more during vaccination, the Cabinet of Ministers held daily press conferences about the pandemic, at which the prime minister and other ministers appeared along with leading scientists advising the government. The information received from scientists has largely reassured the public and prompted them to get vaccinated. The government also used a variety of channels in both social and traditional media in interaction with the public to ensure the broadest possible coverage.

— It is necessary to convince citizens to come and get vaccinated, which is not always easy when there is so much misinformation. How can the authorities correctly convey information to the population?

— There is a lot of support from the international donor community, civil sector and the media. It is important to get this support and use it correctly. The global COVAX initiative, which makes vaccines available to developing countries and for which the UK is one of the largest donors, could provide Kyrgyzstan with more than half a million doses of vaccines, and the country could receive it back in March when they were delivered to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

It is important for the Kyrgyz government to finalize preparations for receiving COVAX as soon as possible so that more people can get vaccinated. Support and tips are also available, which can help in planning the outreach and advertising campaigns. For example, the government has approached our embassy for advice based on the UK experience. And I am glad that we will be able to organize a video conference, where British and Kyrgyz officials will meet and exchange experiences hopefully next week.

— The Minister of Health of Kyrgyzstan proposed his own method of treatment of COVID-19. It was also approved by the President of the country. Would you take the risk of taking a tincture of Issyk-Kul root (aconite) or someone from your family?

— I didn’t seriously think about taking aconite or giving it to my family members. Vaccination is the only proven way to protect people and society from COVID-19. In the UK, vaccination has had a powerful positive impact, significantly reducing both the number of patients dying from coronavirus infection and the number of patients requiring hospital treatment. Although the number of new cases of infection each day is about the same as last fall, the daily number of deaths has dropped from about 500 to about 20. Only vaccination works.

— Are there any groups of population in Britain, for example young people, who have doubts about the effectiveness of vaccination?

— As in most countries, some people are skeptical about vaccination. But I am not aware of specific groups or societies that are more skeptical than others. Young people are among the last to be vaccinated, because most of them are less vulnerable than older groups. Five of my children, all from twenty to thirty years old, really wanted to get vaccinated, and their turn will come soon.

— Is anyone being forced to get vaccinated?

— We did not choose mandatory vaccination. If possible, a voluntary approach is always better. This is quite

real in the UK. Almost 70 percent of UK citizens have received at least one dose, 90 percent have either got an injection or expressed an intention to do it. There are occupations, of course, such as those working in nursing homes, where there is a high risk for others, if you work without vaccination. Employees will be able to work in some of such institutions, if they are vaccinated only. But they won’t be forced to get vaccinated.

— How did the UK persuade doubters to agree to vaccination?

— Quality communication was the key point. All public statements by the authorities are always based on facts to strengthen people’s confidence that the vaccines are safe, that mass vaccination is the only way to protect not only individual citizens, but society as a whole, that this is the fastest way to restore the economy, to return the country to work.

Promotion of the vaccination by well-known and respected figures — politicians, athletes, actors, and so on — turned out to be effective.

Charles Garrett

— How did you deal with fake information? What was propaganda campaign like in the UK?

— It was like elsewhere: there was disinformation, which became a serious problem in overcoming the pandemic. But the best antidote to the poison of misinformation is the truth, facts about the coronavirus. It is important to state this patiently, calmly and persuasively. In doing it, we have been able to gain support of some of the most respected figures in society — our scientists. I am very pleased that a Kyrgyzstani Asel Sartbaeva actively participated in the vaccine research. She has been a strong and persuasive voice throughout the pandemic.

— What were the broader positive effects of the campaign — economic, social and other?

— The broader impact was dramatic. As mortality and hospitalization rates have declined, it has become possible to lift a wide range of social and economic restrictions. It was hard for people not to see friends and family. Pubs, clubs and restaurants are opening, as well as museums, shops, cinemas and much more. People return to their working places instead of working from home. Travel becomes more and more free. Young people can go to schools and universities again. Life is getting back to normal thanks to a successful vaccination program.