A diplomatic and scientific educational approach by trade unions, which highlights health and safety legislation, along with regulations gazetted by government in June, should finally put paid to the claim by anti-vaccination campaigners that workers may refuse, with impunity, to be vaccinated. For the most part, this claim is based on a misrepresentation of the provisions contained in the South African Constitution.
The claim also ignores the provisions of the long-established Occupational Health and Safety Act, let alone the regulations gazetted on June 11.
Yet “anti-vax” arguments continue to rage, along with a debate about whether a Covid-19 vaccination should be compulsory.
According to those still opposing the current vaccination drive, everyone has the constitutional right to refuse to be vaccinated. In this, they are correct: the Bill of Rights grants everyone the right to “bodily integrity” and to “security in and control over their body”.
Some also claim, against all the available evidence, that Covid-19 vaccines are “experimental”; that humanity across the globe is being used and abused in some devilish scheme. These individuals usually quote the fact that citizens have the constitutional right “not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent”.
This argument tends to be the province of religious bigots, people who refuse to allow any evidence, however strong, to influence the beliefs to which they obstinately cling. But the abuse here is in the interpretation of the Constitution, because no rights are absolute – they all come with responsibilities.
National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA executive director Basil Manuel agrees with the “simple and straightforward message” that rights come with responsibilities.
However, it is a message that several unions feel government has mishandled.
In the face of increasingly vociferous campaigns on social media opposing vaccination, these unions claim government adopted a “threatening approach”. This, they feel, has been “counterproductive” and has given rise to an unnecessary and wholly misguided debate about whether vaccination should be compulsory.
SA Democratic Teachers’ Union general secretary Mugwena Maluleke highlighted this point for his members: “While no one can be charged for refusing to be vaccinated, it’s a duty for workers to take the necessary precautions not to put other workers and learners at risk.”
In other words, everyone has the right to refuse a Covid-19 jab, but only if, in so doing, they do not pose a threat to anyone else. In this regard, Maluleke points out that there is now plentiful evidence to show that unvaccinated people can become serious threats not only to themselves, but also to others.
To get this and other points across, on Thursday, the Education Labour Relations Council held a webinar as part of the ongoing campaign to counter “fake news and conspiracy theories”.
The council had invited a specialist medical panel to present the scientific facts and, importantly, to answer questions.
“Education through dialogue” is the route chosen to try to win over the minority of education sector workers who may still have questions and doubts about the Covid-19 pandemic.
One message being stressed is that any individuals who, without legitimate medical reasons, choose not to be vaccinated can develop into possible incubators – factories, effectively – for even more dangerous variants. As one leading virologist pointed out: if not enough people are vaccinated, this could result in “an endless cycle of infection, mutation and transmission”.
Underscoring the importance of vaccination, Irvin Jim, general secretary of the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), has posted a picture on social media of himself being vaccinated. But, as with other unions, Numsa also agrees that vaccination is voluntary and that “no one can be forced to receive the vaccine against his or her wishes”.
However, this is where responsibility comes into play, in terms of both the Constitution and health and safety laws. Simply put, the Constitution gives everyone the right to do exactly as they please, provided that what they do does not impinge on or threaten the rights of anyone else.
It is for this reason, for example, that no one not adequately trained and licensed may legally drive a truck or car on a public road. Equally, why no one with a contagious disease may be allowed to roam freely in public.
Existing health and safety legislation also makes it clear that a legal duty exists for “employers and owners” to ensure the health and safety of all their employees in every workplace. And the recently gazetted regulations specifically refer to “Sars-CoV-2 virus infection”.
Given this reality, there is no use – or need – to discuss compulsory vaccination. In every workplace, the majority of workers and their unions have both the Constitution and labour law on their side in the battle to persuade remaining doubters that vaccination is the way to counter the pandemic.