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Our Brother’s Keeper

As the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded this year, with the emergence of new, more transmissible variants, it seems clear that the only way out is vaccination of a sufficiently high proportion of the populations of all countries to achieve herd immunity.

That proportion is not yet certain because it depends on the transmissibility of the emerging variants. The higher the transmissibility the higher the proportion which must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and so keep the so-called ‘R number’ below one.

Once there is movement of persons between countries, it is not sufficient that only certain wealthy countries reach herd immunity since new variants can emerge in unvaccinated populations which might evade the available vaccines. No-one is safe unless everyone is safe!

This growing realisation that vaccination is our ticket out of the pandemic has opened a debate on whether it should be made mandatory.  If everyone is required to be vaccinated then the spread of the virus will be stopped and new variants could not easily emerge, and even if they did, they would not cause so many cases as to overwhelm our hospitals and would not cause as many deaths.

However, the case for mandatory vaccination effected through legislation is not open and shut. Some individuals should not be vaccinated for medical reasons. Some cite ethical concerns with the ways in which vaccines are developed. Others argue that mandatory vaccination is a breach of their rights.

Yet others suggest that employers cannot make it mandatory for their employees to be vaccinated because that would breach the terms and conditions of their employment.

The legal arguments for and against mandatory vaccination have been discussed by Professor Rose Marie Belle Antoine of The UWI Law faculty. She has pointed out that individual rights are not absolute and Caribbean constitutions provide, explicitly or implicitly, that individual rights, in this case the right to be unvaccinated, could be abridged in the public interest, including importantly, for reasons of public health.

In the workplace, the employer has a duty to provide a safe and healthy working environment which might be compromised by an unvaccinated worker bringing the virus into the premises.

This duty arguably trumps the individual worker’s right to be unvaccinated. Indeed, in certain occupations such as in hospitals and health care, care of the elderly, hospitality, and passenger vehicles (taxis, boats, and planes), it would seem sensible for all workers (except those medically exempt) to be vaccinated.

But societies should not seek to achieve order and harmony through legal compulsion alone. While laws are necessary, it is impossible to legislate for everything and it makes for a better society if we recognise and respect each other’s rights without being forced to do so.

Education, especially moral education, is key in this regard. It is not easy in a world where so much mischief and misinformation are purveyed on social media, instilling fear and anxiety on the question of vaccination in general or about certain vaccines.  In some countries, such as the United States of America, and even here in Trinidad and Tobago, the anti-vaccination movement has unfortunately taken on a political dimension.

While compulsory vaccination might become necessary in the public interest, it is far better that individuals agree to be vaccinated for their own protection (self-interest) as well as the protection of their families, friends and co-workers, and strangers they might encounter.

We are, after all, our brother’s keeper.