Kgaogelo Sithale says there are several considerations that need to be taken into account should the Covid-19 vaccine be made mandatory.
Covid-19 has been with us for months now, and we have grown accustomed to living with it.
What makes Covid-19 unique from previous pandemics is that, in spite of the fact that it has never been seen in humans before, it has invaded a very awakened society.
The awareness concerning issues of social impact has rapidly increased compared to the previous pandemics such as the 2009-2010 H1N1 swine flu. People want an explanation from governments about the handling of the coronavirus.
The need to control the outbreak of this virus has led to a race to develop and deploy effective vaccines.
There are currently more than 50 Covid-19 vaccine candidates in trial as per the World Health Organisation.
South Africa is one of the countries that will commence the vaccine jab this year, but details of a rollout plan are still unknown. All talk is currently grounded on assumptions. But there are complex questions that need to be answered, like who gets to be vaccinated first? Will vaccination be mandatory for everyone? Will there be any exemptions?
Relevant heads are yet to clearly answer these questions, which leaves people in suspense and creates ground for more conspiracy.
Some are suggesting that vaccination should be mandatory without any exemption - especially for frontline and essential workers. The vaccination debate creates fear for some workers who would probably opt for exemption due to various reasons. Concerns are that if they don't take the vaccine they could lose their job or be denied entry to certain places.
But with anti-vaccination activists everywhere, compulsion will not be a simple matter.
Vaccination has always been a very controversial issue.
Concerns have already been raised around the speed at which the vaccines have come on the market. It isn't clear if it will be safe for everyone to take. What are the long-term effects? What impact will the vaccine have on those with pre-existing health conditions?
Some people may object to being vaccinated for religious reasons.
They may refuse on the basis that it may include substances such as swine, whose consumption is prohibited in certain beliefs. Others may refuse because of other religious and philosophical theories. The Constitution still protects this right to religion, belief and opinion as well as the right to life.
Right to control over our bodies
As government considers rolling out vaccinations, the main priority is public health or simply reaching herd immunity. This would be possible if 60%-90% are immunised. But the rollout plan must be done cautiously because there could be possible human rights violation in that process, if it is handled with carelessness.
There might be instances where workplaces call for mandatory vaccination policies for a safer work environment. But employees also have the right to security and control over their bodies. This is a battle of rights which could end up in the Constitutional Court.
Regardless of the urgent need to combat this virus, people's insecurities and concerns about vaccines should never be overlooked. The coronavirus vaccine should never be forced upon anyone.
Section 12(2) of the Constitution provides that "everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to security in and control over their body".
Therefore, if the government or employers initiate laws that will channel mandatory vaccination, such laws should provide exemption on medical, philosophical and religious grounds, lest it be a direct violation of people's fundamental rights such as that of religion and personal autonomy.
We are living in a democracy. Even frontline workers who were identified by the Health Minister as the priority group, should not be forced to take a vaccine. It is a foundational principle of medical ethics that consent must be given for any procedure.
The government should rather encourage and convince people about vaccine safety and allow them to take it willingly. There should also be compensation for those who show any harmful effects as a direct result of taking the vaccine.
But what happens if they fail to convince everyone to vaccinate? Should it be a no vaccine, no job situation?
Mandatory vaccination protocols are not new.
In all 50 US states, Australia and other countries it is mandatory for children over five to receive vaccinations prior to enrolment in public and private schools or daycare facilities. This means a child cannot enrol in an educational institution without being immunised.
But all these places have exemptions on medical grounds, religious exemptions and a few allow philosophical exemptions for those who object to immunisations because of personal, moral or other beliefs.
So, a vaccination policy without exemption for cases such as those mentioned above would be a very new thing in this democratic world.
- Kgaogelo Sithale is a blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @sithalekgaogelo.
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