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Many people are unhappy about the possibility of mandatory vaccination in light of one’s fundamental human right of freedom of choice. There is a storming debate whether requiring vaccination certificates at work or other places amounts to mandatory vaccination policy and if that is a violation of human rights. 

The violation of their human right to freedom of choice is the main argument of anti-vaxxers against any form or suggestion of mandatory vaccination. 

A clear understanding of all the complexities surrounding this issue, requires getting out of the emotional and ideological debate on whether mandatory vaccination is an infringement of human rights. This can only be done through a holistic comprehension of human rights. 

The understanding of human rights has its roots in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed by the UN in 1948. The main trigger for this declaration was two devastating World Wars in which atrocious human rights abuses were committed. 

Human rights are rights that everyone has simply because they are human. The UDHR sets out 30 fundamental rights (or articles) that must be protected. These articles include certain rights that are often cited against mandatory vaccinations. For instance, rights such as “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy”, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, and “everyone has the right to freedom of thought and conscience” are routinely used, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim the right to freedom of choice and thus to make a case against mandatory vaccination. 

This protection is especially claimed as these rights are also protected in the South African constitution. The Bill of Rights in Chapter 2 of the constitution complements the UDHR by explicating rights such as “no person may unfairly discriminate against anyone”, and, specifically, “everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to security in and control over their body and not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent”. Based on these rights, excluding unvaccinated people from work or other places appears to represent a form of discriminationand  the arguments against mandatory vaccination seem convincing.

Rights and responsibilities

However, with every right comes accountability to exercise it responsibly, and consequences if one does not. Exercising any right without consideration of the other person and his or her rights is likely to infringe on their rights or be destructive. For instance, one cannot hide behind one’s right to freedom of speech when inappropriately slandering someone else. 

About 10 years ago, an artist claimed his right to freedom of expression when producing a degrading painting of ex-president Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals. Both these examples contravene the right of the other because the constitution also stipulates that every person has the right to “inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”. We are liable to exercise our rights responsibly and must be taken to task if we don’t, because the rights of others must also be protected. 

The rights declared in the constitution and the UDHR are in a fine balance. No right is sacrosanct or more important than another. All rights must be seen and read in combination with the other rights. Both sets of rights are explicit that none of the rights may be interpreted by anyone as giving one the “right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms”. 

In other words, one may not infringe on someone else’s rights when exercising your rights. 

Let’s get back to the mandatory vaccination debate. Both sets of human rights explicitly note that everyone has the right to life and health. This right must be protected through “lawful, reasonable and fair” administrative actions, according to the constitution. 

Every person thus has the right not to have their health being endangered by others who pose an infection risk. Vaccinated individuals have an inherent human right to have their health protected and thus be protected against future infections. With evidence confirming that vaccines prevent infections or lessen the severity of the infections in comparison with not being vaccinated, it seems reasonable and fair that unvaccinated individuals must be kept separate from vaccinated ones, to protect the health of the latter. 

Moreover, there is also a right to employment and fair wages. We all know how many people have lost their jobs as the long-term effect of the pandemic ravaged the economy and resulted in the closure of many businesses. In many businesses, employees have lost their right to fair remuneration when they were forced to take up to 50% pay cuts. 

Protecting the rights to health, life, employment and fair remuneration through mandatory vaccination does not align with accusations of being unfair and not adhering to human rights. Rather it appears to be a reasonable duty to fulfil. 

Lawful, reasonable and fair administrative actions to exercise due control and protection is nothing new or sinister. 

Passports

For instance, both the UDHR and constitution support one’s right to leave a country and to return to this country. However, one has to have a valid passport before you will be allowed to leave or enter a country. In many cases, you also have to obtain a visa to be able to leave your country before you can enter another one. 

Every person has the right to decide to apply, or not to apply for a passport. Having a passport is not mandatory, but deciding not to obtain a valid passport has a consequence in that you cannot leave or enter countries. To what extent is requiring vaccinations to enter a workplace or other venue different to having a passport?

If mandatory vaccinations implied that every person was forced to be vaccinated without any choice, it would have infringed unacceptably on human rights. 

However, this is not the meaning or intention of mandatory vaccinations. Rather, the intention is to enable institutions to exercise their duty to protect stakeholders’ right to life and health by ensuring that every person who enters a specific workplace, event or any other place does not pose an unnecessary health risk. 

Yes, you have the right not to be vaccinated. However, you have to realise that every right goes with consequences. One consequence might be that you will not be allowed into your workplace, sports events, restaurants or other places to protect the right of others not to be infected, their right to life and health. This does not force you to get vaccinated or infringe your rights, but you are liable to the consequences that ensue on your decision.   

Everyone has the right not to be vaccinated, but exercising this right comes with unavoidable consequences.

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