Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – This time last year, just about everyone was pressuring scientists, medical professionals, governments and international organisations to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine pronto.
Now, several vaccines have been developed, and the tune has changed.
The critics have crawled out of the woodwork, made an about turn and are lobbying hard against mass vaccination programmes.
For some, there are religious reasons. For others, there are genuine concerns about safety. And for others yet, it is uninformed mistrust of governments and the pharmaceutical industry that has long prioritised profits over all else.
The novel coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, and the first COVID-19 vaccine, Russia’s Sputnik V, was registered in August 2020.
Historically, it has taken anything from eight to 15 years for vaccines to be developed, approved and rolled out.
But then again, there are huge advances in medical sciences every week, and the sheer scale of the catastrophe facing humanity further spurred the world to develop, approve and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
Since Russia’s breakthrough with Sputnik V, the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BionTech, Moderna and Sinopharm vaccines have all been made available for use. And the major concern for governments and health agencies has shifted from developing a vaccine to achieving the famed herd immunity of inoculating at least 60 percent of any given national population.
From a scientific perspective, experts say a vaccine is the surest way of building on the foundation of the basics of handwashing/sanitising, mask-wearing and social distancing.
But what happens if less than 60 percent of national populations decline to undergo voluntary vaccination? How are populations mobilised to accept voluntary vaccination en masse in age of individual rights?
President Emerson Mnangagwa gave a glimpse of the kind of future awaited Zimbabweans within the context of voluntary vaccination and the push to attain herd immunity.
“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! (ZUPCO is Zimbabwe’s public transporter.)
“The leadership has and continues to demonstrate safety of the country’s chosen vaccines by being the first ones to have the vaccines administered on them, added the President, revealing he is set to be vaccinated in the second batch of the vaccine which is expected in the country in the next week of two. So, too, will his cabinet ministers,” his spokesperson Mr George Charamba said as he interpreted public remarks made by his boss last week.
In a nutshell, the Government of Zimbabwe is saying vaccination is voluntary, but opting out has its consequences to the concerned individuals.
It is a reality that is playing out across the world.
In the European Union and the United Kingdom there is growing talk of the adoption of a COVID-19 vaccination passport.
European Council President Charles Michel last week said EU leaders had “agreed to continue our work on a common approach. More work needs to be done on digitisation and on co-operation with the World Health Organisation”.
“But tonight we felt more and more convergence among us on this important topic (the vaccine passport). The European Council will revert to this matter,” he added.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said: “Some countries, clearly, are going to be wanting to insist that people coming to their country have evidence of a vaccination just as people have insisted in the past that you have evidence you are vaccinated against yellow fever or other diseases.”
Israel, which has already inoculated half of its nine million citizens, released a mobile application last month which shows a person’s vaccination status and allows them access to malls, museums, gyms, hotels, theatres, and concerts, albeit with some limits.
Introduction of a COVID-19 passport would not be an entirely new concept.
Currently, yellow fever vaccination is mandatory to enter countries such as Angola, the Central African Republic, Mali, Uganda and others.
For COVID-19, this is the future, according to observers.
The International Air Travel Association – which represents over 290 airlines – has already said a vaccine passport is likely to become mandatory for air travel.
“To re-open borders without quarantine and restart aviation governments need to be confident that they are effectively mitigating the risk of importing COVID-19. This means having accurate information on passengers’ COVID-19 health status.
“Informing passengers on what tests, vaccines and other measures they require prior to travel, details on where they can get tested and giving them the ability to share their tests and vaccination results in a verifiable, safe and privacy-protecting manner is the key to giving governments the confidence to open borders. To address this challenge IATA is working on launching the IATA Travel Pass, a digital platform for passengers,” IATA said.
Right to Privacy
But the idea of a COVID-19 passport has drawn the ire of privacy campaigners and rights groups who argue that the passes could lead to discrimination.
This has prompted South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to state that people who opt against vaccination will not face any repercussions for their choice – at least within that country.
“It is in the best interests of all that many of us receive the vaccine if possible, but I want to be clear: nobody will be forced to take this vaccine. Nobody will be forbidden from travelling to wherever they want to travel to including from enrolling at school or to taking part in any public activity if they have not been vaccinated. Nobody will be given this vaccine against their will nor will the vaccine be administered in secret or in some dark corner, any rumours to this effect are both false and dangerous,” he said.
The World Health Organisation has also spoken out against rushed introduction of such passports, highlighting that there are still some uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of vaccination.
“Being vaccinated should not exempt international travellers from complying with other travel risk reduction measures,” says WHO. “There are still too many fundamental unknowns in terms of the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing transmission and vaccines are still only available in limited quantities.”
Regardless, governments face some tough choices, especially when it comes to certain sections of society.
For instance, should vaccination be compulsory for health and military personnel? Will governments take disciplinary action against such key personnel if they refuse vaccination? What of private organisations and companies, can they compel employees to be inoculated? Can schools demand that all teachers be vaccinated?
These are some of the constitutional and individual rights questions that the world has to answer in the new normal.