By Aasmi Patil
Personal liberty or public good? This has undoubtedly become one of the most popularly debated topics over the past year. This comes in relation to the covid vaccine shots that have been made available for a major proportion of the population.
It is a relief that we are at a much better place today, with the delta and omicron variants receding, covid cases coming down by each day, and restrictions being relaxed all over the world, people have become much more casual and relaxed after three full years of stringent covid restrictions. However, masks are still being used, this shows us that even if, the pandemic might possibly come to an end by this year, people are still scared to let go of precautions completely. It is these past three years that have left such a huge impact on us, and we do not wish to experience that time all over again, rather, just reminiscence the moments as memories of the past. However, the WHO has still warned the world of possible new variants though, less deadly variants of covid in the near future. The WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “As we enter the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m confident that this will be the year we end it – but only if we do it together”. It is pertinent to note that he mentions, we must work ‘together’ for this to happen. How can this be achieved? How can we work together? What can I as an individual contribute to help end this pandemic that has caused ravages across the globe?
One of the very basic and common answers is, to take precautions, don’t abandon masks and sanitizers, and most importantly, take your vaccine shots. But what exactly is a vaccine? Vaccines can, in the simplest words be described as a preparation that contains very mild or weakened disease-causing microbes, virus in this case. These microbes, which are very weak, when administered in the body, stimulate the body’s response against the disease. A covid vaccine pre-prepares the body to deal with the virus if it ever comes into contact in the future. In the case of covid, the virus by itself can be fatal, however, if it gets coupled with an already existing illness that a person is suffering from, especially lung-related diseases, the chances of it being life-threatening increases exponentially. Medical researchers have proven that taking a jab, to a large extent, shields a person from contracting the virus. The efficiency of these vaccines can also be understood from the data released by the Health Ministry in 2022. Officials said that vaccines have been beneficial for India, with a proven reduction in deaths among the vaccinated population as compared to the unvaccinated ones. Reduction in covid related deaths can be seen strikingly in the third wave wherein 72% of the population was vaccinated as compared to the mere 2% in the second wave.
Seeing the benefits and credibility coupled with the availability and accessibility of vaccines produced across the globe, some countries have put compulsion on their people to get vaccinated, also known as ‘vaccine mandates’ in order to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading any further. Governments have argued that vaccines create herd immunity, protecting not only the individual, but other people also, thus mandating them is not a negative thing. Countries however vary in imposing such restrictions on their people. Mask mandates have been put in place by most countries, but they differ on the question of whether or not to mandate vaccines for its citizens. A few countries with the most stringent vaccine mandates are-
- Indonesia, here the local government has the power to fine any person who refuses to take a vaccine. Such persons can be denied social security benefits and government as well.
- Austria, which has made vaccines mandatory for all citizens above 18 years of age, with the only exclusion of pregnant women and those with proven medical reasons advising to not take them.
- Morocco, where vaccination is necessary to access government buildings and other places like bars, restaurants, etc.
- United States, federal employees have been mandated to get vaccination or they could even lose their jobs.
The W.H.O. has time and again laid emphasis on the importance of taking the vaccine and has encouraged people to do so, but it has also taken a stand against vaccine mandates saying that they are imposed unless “all options have been exhausted”. India has also encouraged its population to take their jabs, but no mandates have been put in place.
But why have these mandates become such a controversial topic? This could be because two very sensitive issues get involved in this debate. These are human rights and personal liberty of an individual as against the health and well-being of the public at large. In western countries where these individual rights are especially valued, protestors have come up on the streets to show their dissent against such mandates. Thousands of people have taken to the streets of major cities in countries like Canada, France, Australia, among other countries, to show their resentment and disapproval of such mandates. But what remains unanswered is why are these people, popularly known as ‘anti-vaxxers’ (those against taking covid vaccines) are so against getting vaccinated. The Household Pulse Survey (HPS) conducted by US Central Bureau reported some reasons as to why its citizens are unwilling to take their jabs. About 50 percent of the respondents were worried about the possible side effects of the vaccine, about 42 percent voted that they don’t trust the vaccine, less than 10 percent reported that they aren’t getting the vaccines because their doctor had not recommended it and another 2 percent said that they were having difficulty obtaining it.
Even if the vaccines do good for the people, the vaccine mandates seem to be inconsistent with the rights of an individual. While human rights remain the same all over the world, for convenience, let us take the example of rights enshrined in the Constitution of India and what stand the Indian Government and the Indian Supreme Court takes on this issue. In the case of Registrar General v. State of Meghalaya, the Meghalaya High Court ruled that the State Government’s order requiring shopkeepers, local taxi drivers, and others to get a vaccine before they resume economic activities was violative of their right to privacy, life, personal liberty, and livelihood under Article 21. It dealt with other issues like whether vaccination can at all be made mandatory and whether such mandatory action can adversely affect the rights of a citizen to earn his/her livelihood. The Hon’ble Court made it clear that vaccination is the need of the hour in order to tackle the pandemic, but does it give the government the right to infringe an individual’s right, is an issue needing much more consideration. The Hon’ble Court stated that Article 21 encompasses within its fold, the right to health, as a fundamental right. By that same analogy, the right to health care, which includes vaccination, is a fundamental right. However, vaccination by force or being made mandatory by adopting coercive methods vitiates the very fundamental purpose of the welfare attached to it. It impinges on the fundamental right(s) as such, especially when it affects the right to means of livelihood which makes it possible for a person to live.
In the case of Kumari Vaishnavi v. The Union of India through the Secretary, brought in front of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, pertaining to the access to vaccinations to persons with disabilities, the Centre told the apex court that it has not issued any such notice that makes it mandatory to carry vaccination certificates for any purpose. The Centre also made it clear that it would not put forth any vaccine mandates and that vaccinations without consent or enforceable vaccinations would not take place. Both the Government and the Supreme Court have thus made the stand that India takes on this question very clear, which is that the country encourages people to take vaccines but would not force them to do so.
Indians however have been very reciprocated of the vaccines made available to them. Starting the drive from health care and essential service workers, then to the elderly, then to the adult population (18 years and older) and finally, the recently launched, 15 years and older populations drive to vaccinate, all have shown enthusiastic response, making India a country with one of the largest vaccinated populations. Despite resistance from certain sections, India has administered over 1.79 billion doses overall, including first, second, and precautionary (booster) doses of the currently approved vaccines. In India, 96% of the eligible population (15 and above) has received at least one shot, and 79% of the eligible population (15 and above) is fully vaccinated. In India, where a large population of poor, in case they tested positive for covid, could just not afford treatments and medicines, getting a free vaccine was seen as a luxury. Whether it is one’s belief in modern-day science or just the simple fact that an injection could protect one and their family from the deadly virus, the Indian population, across all age, gender, and socio-economic groups has been reciprocated it. Thus, the government never had to actually introduce any forceful mandates to get its population vaccinated.
After having looked at this issue involving personal rights and the public good, my opinion is very similar to that of the W.H.O. and the Indian Government. Vaccines are definitely the need of the hour but forcing them on the people would do no good. I believe that these rumors and misconceptions relating to the vaccines shall be addressed and cleared out. People should be encouraged to take vaccines and not forced to do so. I would like to conclude by saying that I am pro-vaccines but against vaccine mandates. Only if there is a completely negative response from the people should it be made mandatory, otherwise not. So, Getting Vaccinated: A Choice or a Compulsion? Definitely more of an individual’s choice I believe.