Phillip de Wet | Covid-19 vaccine debate: Govt. should have employed the road safety principles

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Government should use road safety principles when trying to get citizens to take part in the Covid-19 vaccination programme, writes the author.
Government should use road safety principles when trying to get citizens to take part in the Covid-19 vaccination programme, writes the author.
Jasmin Merdan

The moral and legal philosophy evolved to deal with road safety is a map to how government can deal with those who refuse to take a Covid-19 vaccine, writes Phillip de Wet.

Six months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a big mistake.

"It is in the best interests of all that as many of us receive the vaccine as possible," he said in an address to the nation on 1 February. So far, so good.

"But I want to be clear," he went on immediately. 

"Nobody will be forced to take this vaccine. Nobody will be forbidden from travelling, from enrolling at school, or from taking part in any public activity if they have not been vaccinated."

At the time, it probably seemed to the President and his advisors a reasonable response to the ludicrous rumours and misinformation then doing the rounds. In hindsight, it closed down policy options that other countries are considering or already implementing. France, for instance, can fairly be said to be using a combination of compulsion and coercion to get citizens vaccinated.

And the argument can - and is being - made that mandatory vaccinations can be legally imposed in South Africa, never mind imposing limits on what people exercising their (current) right to not be inoculated may do.

For companies, the math is very simple: every vaccinated person is worth more money. Booze companies have just about begged for faster vaccine rollout to protect their profits from more lockdown restrictions, and retailers consider vaccinated customers as protecting their staff, and businesses overall. The same is true for government, in terms of job growth and tax revenue, only more so, because the state also carries much of the expense when more unvaccinated people take seriously ill or die.

READ | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Why I think it is time for the govt to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory

There are legal and logistical problems with compelled vaccinations, and political ones too, all the more so thanks to that Ramaphosa speech.

The one problem we don't have is philosophical. We have a rock-solid, time-tested set of principles to draw on, from road safety. Specifically, seatbelts.

Under very specific and extremely rare conditions, seat belts can kill. You can find quite serious academics who, on the basis of quite solid numbers, argue they don't really work. There are dangerous misconceptions about their use among some groups.

And society doesn't care. It does not accommodate those who disagree with the mainstream view, or debate outlier data points with them. It uses education in an attempt to foster willing compliance, simply because doing so is cheaper than enforcement, but takes clear and unequivocal responsibility to make everyone wear one, for their own good.

You don't have to agree. In South Africa you are absolutely free to believe - mistakenly - that not wearing a seatbelt increases your odds of being "thrown clear" of an accident, as it is so often put, and in that way surviving what would otherwise have been a fatal crash. Just as long as you don't put that belief into action. Do so, and get caught, and you face punitive action.

You can argue that you have the right to suicide by not wearing a seat belt, that should something happen to you, you waive access to medical care. The logistical complications aside, society shoulders the burden of protecting you from your own stupidity, especially when it can be fatal, and suffers collective moral damage by allowing exceptions.


Beyond seat belts, road safety priorities are set by vulnerability. A driver safely ensconced in a car is expected to take responsibility for a soft and squishy pedestrian. Pedestrians are coerced to stay in zones where they are safe, and urged to take responsibility for their own safety - but you can expect a culpable homicide investigation if you run over one standing in the middle of the road.

There are also annoying provisions based on the needs of others, such as lower speed limits around schools, and quite disruptive steps taken for the good of others, such as road closures for special events.

READ | Opinion: Dantia Richards: Mandatory Covid-19 vaccine policies: What about our civil liberties?

Don't like it? Then you can choose to never set foot on a public road. That this is impossible, that you can not lead anything approaching a normal life without leaving your home, just doesn't come into it.

At no point are individuals asked if they, personally, are satisfied that the data supports the rules imposed on them. People are not polled on their trust in the government, or indulged when they argue that global road-safety bodies are conspiring against them. They are told what is expected, and punished if they fail to act accordingly.

The President should probably have kept that in mind before he made promises. Other than the embarrassment of having to reverse his position, though, there is no reason his administration can't use those same principles now.

- Phillip de wet is the Associate editor of Business Insider SA

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