It’s a commonly known truism that rights come with responsibilities.
While it is commonly known, actually implementing the maxim is easier said than done, more so in a world in which individual rights finder greater space to express themselves on the bases of state-guaranteed and internationally recognised legal structures such as constitutions, treaties and conventions.
COVID-19, besides being a health issue and an economic threat, tests how strong protection of individual rights is.
For starters, there were grumblings when governments implemented lockdowns. Many people complained that states were overreaching themselves within the context of freedom of movement and association.
Various arguments were raised about this, some more valid than others. But at some stage, there was a general consensus that painful as the lockdowns were, everyone needed to play their part in ensuring their own personal health safety.
Now an even bigger test has been presented by the pandemic: that of vaccination.
Historically, contemporary Africa has been more receptive to mass vaccination campaigns. This is a legacy of essentially enforced/compulsory inoculation against the child killer diseases. (And that legacy alone places the continent in good stead to rollout mass vaccinations of COVID-19 from a systems and culture point of view, but that is a matter for another day.)
On the other hand, the culture of individual rights has to some extent been more entrenched in Western countries, and they have historically had relatively low child vaccination rates.
But COVID-19 has changed things up a bit, and the individual rights crusaders have found a firm foothold in Africa as the message goes out that people should not be forced to receive inoculation against the new coronavirus.
Various reasons were being put forward in support of non-compulsory vaccination: the vaccines have been rushed to the public; governments should avail a selection of vaccines that people can chose from instead of only rolling out one product; states have no right to force any adult to accept any medical treatment; and religious rights, in the case of those belief systems that do not promote conventional medical treatment.
All these contributions make sense.
And what also makes sense is something that World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus has been underscoring for nearly a year know.
This past week he made the same point again when he said “unless we end the pandemic everywhere we will not end it anywhere”.
Granted, Dr Ghebreyesus said this within the specific context of rich countries are hoarding vaccines to the extent that even the COVAX initiative cannot get a steady supply of the drugs.
But the fact is this: as long as COVID-19 infection rates remain high in any one part of the world, then the whole world has a problem.
By the nature of the virus, and the nature of the modern economy, this is not a disease that will be confined to one part of the world. It has to be eliminated everywhere. Period.
This is where the whole craze about “herd immunity” stems from.
The experts have established their models over the decades, which show that immunising 60 percent of the population is a sure way of beginning to eliminate an outbreak of such proportions.
This does not mean governments and health authorities must merely earmark 60 percent of the population for vaccination. It means 60 percent is a solid start.
This requires the buy-in of the vast majority.
With vaccination rollouts being conducted on a voluntary basis, there is a real danger that authorities are going to face problems in achieving herd immunity in the short to medium-term.
And short of triggering the same public health emergency provisions used by most governments to institute lockdowns and other virus control measures over the past year, authorities are going to have to conduct convincing, erudite awareness and mobilisation campaigns.
On the other hand, authorities retain the means to indirectly coerce people into vaccination. These include simply barring those who do not have proof of vaccination from going to certain places.
Already, essentially no one in the world can travel without presenting evidence that they tested negative for COVID-19 within the past 72 hours. The logical next step for many jurisdictions is that a person will not travel without either the time-bound negative test, or proof of vaccination.
Either way, authorities must quickly strike that balance between individual rights and group rights without necessarily having to resort to use of instruments of coercion. That is a stage no one wants to reach.
Related to this, the Southern African Development Community also needs to urgently come up with a harmonised position on vaccination and opening of borders.
Inasmuch as countries may tell their citizens they have a right to refuse vaccination, what is to stop the individual governments from barring entry to foreigners who have not been vaccinated?
A common position is needed on this, especially considering how interconnected SADC is and how many of our people depend on cross-border movements to earn their keep.
A harmonised approach will further enhance our collective health security as a region and will be a great example of regional integration at a practical, every day level.
We do not have the answers to the hard questions posed by our changed reality in a world wracked by COVID-19.
But engagement in the right spirit, within governments, with and among citizens, and multilaterally will surely take us to the stage where we can strike a balance between individual rights and group rights.