Are mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations a violation of human rights?

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the South African government implemented several lockdown emergency regulations that were meant to contain the spread of coronavirus and ease the burden on hospitals and healthcare workers. 

Two years later, about 18.4-million South Africans are fully vaccinated, which is about 31.1% of the population (children under the age of 12 are not yet encouraged to do so).  This percentage is still nowhere near the target of 67% of the population being fully vaccinated that President Cyril Ramaphosa had anticipated by the end of 2021. 

Making vaccination mandatory may be beneficial, given that the government has a responsibility to protect its people; but it does raise the issue of whether forcing individuals to receive a compulsory vaccination would interfere with their rights. 

“No one will be forced to be vaccinated,” said Ramaphosa in his 12 September 2021 speech, despite the fact that in the same speech, he revealed that 96% of the people over 60 who were hospitalised in the Western Province — and 98% of the people over 60 who died — were not vaccinated.

Globally, studies have confirmed that vaccinations have saved millions of lives, particularly in the cases of smallpox and polio. It’s also well documented that the Covid-19 vaccination contributed to a decline in death rates. South Africa was particularly hard-hit by Covid-19; Discovery estimates that 80% of South Africans may have had Covid-19 and that after recovering from it, one may develop natural immunity. Whether one is vaccinated or has had the virus, reinfections still occur, although the vaccine appears to provide additional protection when this happens.

The emergence of Covid-19 led scientists and researchers to work endlessly to find a vaccine to eradicate the virus and some of them (Pfizer and J&J, particularly in South Africa) were approved for mass vaccination. But despite the efforts made by governments to provide a vaccination against Covid-19, there has been a notable trend of anti-vaccination. Vaccine uptake has reached a plateau in many countries, due to widespread disinformation. The basis of the “anti-vaxxer” standpoint is false information about the vaccine, which is spread via social media, based on religious beliefs and vaccine side-effects such as experiencing a sore arm, headache or dizziness. Other contributing factors may be the breakdown of trust in public health institutions, antiquated social norms and lack of experience with a vaccine-preventable disease. 

Is mandatory vaccination a violation of human rights? The right to life and privacy and freedom of expression come into play regarding making vaccination compulsory. The argument is that individuals should have control over their actions, especially regarding their own bodies. What are the appropriate penalties for individuals who reject vaccination? This raises complex human rights considerations.

Perhaps mandatory vaccination should only be applicable in sectors such as education and healthcare, for obvious reasons. Several companies (such as Discovery) and certain educational institutions (such as the University of Johannesburg) enforce mandatory vaccination policies. Employees and students must be fully vaccinated or they are denied entry to the workplace or the campus. 

There is still limited data on the long-term efficacy of the vaccine, hence the need for booster shots after specific time periods, making mandatory vaccination difficult to justify. Perhaps the best solution is to properly educate people about the vaccine and ensure that government policies and the companies that manufacture vaccines are completely transparent. 

South Africa is a democratic state; we must endeavour to save lives by providing the best information about the coronavirus, as the research results arrive. The introduction of mandatory vaccination may increase uptake, but its implementation could also increase the already prevalent widespread public mistrust in our government.

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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Njabulo Nomvula Nene
Njabulo Nomvula Nene is a master’s candidate in sociology at the University of Johannesburg

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