Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – Mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and use of vaccine passports are fast becoming the new normal as governments and private sector entities inch towards full reopening.
While uneven vaccine distribution and “vaccine hesitancy” – the latter fuelled by religious beliefs, safety concerns and uninformed conspiracy theories – have emerged big threats to rapid achievement of herd immunity, countries are moving towards reopening services to inoculated citizens.
Zim takes lead
In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is leading the way.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has already indicated that certain services could soon be the preserve of vaccinated people.
“The President of Zimbabwe, Comrade ED Mnangagwa, today broke his silence on whether or not the COVID- 19 vaccination remains voluntary forever. Those wishing to abstain from the vaccination programme are free to do so for as long as they accept the onerous trade-off: namely that they may have to be barred from public spaces, including accessing offices, shops or riding on mass transits like ZUPCO! (Zimbabwe’s public transporter),” his spokesperson, Mr George Charamba said.
This week, Zimbabwe’s Cabinet directed all civil servants to be vaccinated.
“In taking the lead, Government has further reduced its workforce to 25 percent, on a two-week rotational interval. Priority will be given to the vaccinated personnel. All civil servants should be vaccinated and those that fall ill without having been vaccinated will not be entitled to the COVID-19 insurance,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said.
And Public Service Commission secretary Jonathan Wutawunashe said unvaccinated government workers would not be allowed to use the government’s subsidised transport system.
Companies are also pushing employees to get vaccinated.
Communications firm TelOne, seed house Seed Co and agri-inputs giant Windmill this week all issued directives to staff to get vaccinated.
“Due to the reduction of business as a result of the reduced service uptake by both enterprise clients and the government sector, the company is experiencing a decrease in the productive hours. As such staff will be required to immediately take vacation leave starting with those that are not vaccinated
“All staff is advised of the withdrawal of COVID-19 allowance for all those that are not vaccinated with immediate effect,” TelOne said.
Seed Co procured 10,000 vaccine doses for staff and key stakeholders, and said it recognised individual rights for and against vaccination. However, the company said it had an obligation to protect vaccinated staff by barring entry to unvaccinated employees and others into its premises or onto its buses.
“With effect from August 1, the company will send all unvaccinated employees on leave and will request to see COVID-19 vaccination certificates or negative PCR certificates taken within 24 hrs at the cost of the unvaccinated employee as and when they come to the factory,” the company said.
Windmill opted for subtlety: “The company will be reviewing the traditional one bag (of fertiliser) free issue normally given out in August by availing an additional one bag for those staff members (excluding executive management) that have been vaccinated.”
SA Weighs Options
In South Africa, trouble is brewing between employers and workers unions over plans by business to invoke the Occupational Health and Safety Act to compel employees to get vaccinated.
Public health lawyer Safura Abdool Karim was quoted by The Citizen saying companies had an obligation to create a safe working environment for their employees. “Part of that can include mandatory Covid vaccination for employees,” said Karim.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has come out guns blazing, vowing to oppose mandatory vaccinations.
“The ministerial direction is specific that no worker can be forced to vaccinate or be dismissed for refusing a vaccine. We will use the [Labour Relations Act] and the constitution to defend workers,” Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said.
Mauritius, which depends heavily on international tourism receipts to keep its economy afloat, has already begun making use of vaccination passports.
The island nation announced that from July 15 until September 30, as part of the first phase of its reopening plan, the SADC member state would welcome fully vaccinated visitors only to one of 14 “resort bubbles” it has established.
Phase two of the re-opening, which begins in October, will allow vaccinated travellers to enter Mauritius without any need to stay in their resort bubble, but they must present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours.
Unvaccinated visitors can still enter Mauritius, but have to go through quarantine in a hotel – at their own cost – for two weeks.
Across the Atlantic, the Joe Biden administration in the United States has ruled out imposing mandatory vaccination at federal level, but some states are going ahead to do just that.
California will require all 2.2 million state employees and healthcare workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly from August; while New York City will from mid-September require the same for its 45,000 municipal workers who include police officers and teachers.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs a huge health system, announced this week it would be mandatory for its frontline workers to be vaccinated, becoming the first federal agency to do so.
In France, the introduction of mandatory vaccinations for health workers triggered massive protests last week.
French authorities have introduced a health pass that will allow all vaccinated adults to access restaurants, bars, planes and trains from August. A similar arrangement will apply to children below 12 from September.
“I no longer have any intention of sacrificing my life, my time, my freedom and the adolescence of my daughters as well as their right to study properly for those who refuse to be vaccinated, this time, you stay home, not us,” French President Emanuel Macron declared.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is exploring the idea of making proof of vaccination a pre-requisite for university students to attend lectures and to stay in halls of residence.
Education Minister Vicky Ford said, “We do not want to go back to a situation where large parts of education were closed to many young people and children, and a key part of doing that is having that double-vaccinated population.”
The idea has been met with fierce resistance from the University and College Union, whose general secretary Jo Grady said: “Sadly, this looks and smells like a Prime Minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive.”
On July 1, the 27-member European Union unveiled a COVID-19 passport for citizens, residents and specific categories of travellers from non-EU countries which ease restrictions on vaccinated travellers.
“When travelling, every Digital Green Certificate holder will have the same rights as citizens of the visited Member State who have been vaccinated, tested or recovered,” the EU Commission said.
The EU COVID-19 vaccination passport will be issued to people who have been fully vaccinated using any of the four vaccines approved by the European Medicine Agency (Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Johnson and Johnson).
However, the EU Commission has also permitted Member States to individually issue certificates for travellers vaccinated with vaccines other than those approved by the EMA.