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To vaccinate or not to vaccinate – A human rights question

The South African Human Rights Commission, and the rest of South Africa, felt a sense of relief when the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived on 1 February.

But within a week scientific and medical assessment concluded that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine proved less effective against the new Covid-19 strain. The University of Witwatersrand conducted a trial of the vaccine and concluded that it “provides minimal protection against mild-moderate Covid-19 infection” against the South African variant of the coronavirus. As a result the state had to make a decision and on 16 February the first batch of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine — 80 000 doses — arrived in South Africa.

It is welcomed in the context of us all enduring the tremendous negative effects the pandemic has had. Covid-19 has, globally, caused the death of more than 2.5-million people and more than 100-million people have been infected. It has halted economic activity and deepened poverty, economic inequality and unemployment. Numerous civil and political rights have also been harmed because of the measures states have taken in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

The issue of the efficacy of the first batch of vaccines led to increased debate about vaccines, with particular focus on vaccines against Covid-19.

The commission supports the state’s efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible, to ensure the entire population of South Africa is protected against the further spread of this dangerous virus. The commission believes that many lives can be saved if people take the opportunity to get vaccinated and encourages all adults to opt for being vaccinated.

 But, as a constitutional democracy based on the foundations of equality, freedom and dignity, a person’s decision to have the vaccine should be voluntary. The right to freedom and security of the person, contained in the Bill of Rights, chapter two of the Constitution, includes the right not to be subjected to medical procedures without their informed consent. The commission emphasises that no person can be forced by anyone, including the state, to be vaccinated. This sentiment has been repeated by the President Cyril Ramaphosa on a number of occasions.

Herd immunity is understood to be resistance to the spread of an infectious disease in a population based on a high proportion of individuals being immune as a result of previous infection or vaccination. Medical practitioners, the scientific community and the department of health would want to vaccinate 40-million people. Those 40-million people would have to do so voluntarily. This poses the first of many human rights deliberations.

 The choice to present oneself for the vaccination against Covid-19 must be based on adequate information about the vaccines. In a digital age of social media, in the “post-fact” era, with “alternative facts” being accepted and opinion becoming fact, it would be difficult for anyone to discern the truth pertaining to vaccines.

In a context where vaccination campaigns have been used for insidious ends, particularly on the African continent, it is understandable that many are concerned about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. Globally much misinformation about vaccines and the emergence of the anti-vaxxer movement has resulted in more people opting out of being vaccinated.

 Juxtaposed to this, the first disease to have sparked the development of a vaccine was smallpox, which declared by the World Health Assembly to be eradicated globally in 1980. The smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. Without it, the world would still be burdened by a disease that led to the elimination of many ethnicities in North America, a disease that had a 30% mortality rate and left most of its survivors with deep superficial scars and some with lifelong disabilities. Today, contagious and potentially lethal diseases such as polio are close to being eradicated by vaccines.

For people to effectively exercise their discretion in deciding whether they would be counted among the 40-million to be vaccinated, and make informed choices, information campaigns need to be intensified and sustained for the duration of the vaccination process.

 The second human rights consideration is not in opposition to the first, but much rather one that requires an emphasis on good public information campaigns to ensure that as many as possible present themselves to be inoculated. Informed consent will ensure that we will be able to address all the other human rights problems Covid-19 has posed. The poor and marginalised, a number that has increased since quarantines and lockdowns were initiated, are most in need of a restoration and an improvement to the realisation of their socioeconomic rights. A return to work and trade would ensure that the right to food, housing, education and a litany of others are closer to being realised.

The commission urges the public to make their decision based on scientific evidence from identifiable and reputable sources, as opposed to baseless claims circulating on social and other media, all-too-often made by faceless, anonymous sources.

The commission asks employers, traditional leaders, church leaders and others to allow and, where necessary, assist those who wish to get inoculated and also to respect the choices of those who do not want to be vaccinated. It will be a violation to threaten, stigmatise, victimise and discriminate against those who choose not to be vaccinated. 

For now, vaccines are the only viable and promising way of getting rid of the pandemic in this country and globally. The commission reiterates its call in encouraging everyone to have themselves vaccinated against Covid-19, as and when the various phases of the vaccines are rolled out.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Bongani Majola
Advocate Bongani Majola is currently the chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, a seven-year term that commenced on 3 January 2017

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