Editorial | Are vaccine mandates dead?
HAVING METAPHORICALLY flung his hands in the air and suggested that it is every man for himself and devil take the hindmost, Prime Minister Andrew Holness should also clarify whether his “argument done” remark also means an end to any discussion by the Government about vaccine mandates to fight COVID-19.
The question is relevant given Jamaica’s ongoing fourth wave of the coronavirus, and the health ministry data pointing to the efficacy of the vaccines against bad outcomes from the disease. Up to January 24, according to global tracking data, only 21 per cent of Jamaicans were fully vaccinated since the island began inoculating its citizens against the coronavirus in March 2021. Over that period, 2,065 people died from COVID-19. That represents 79 per cent of all deaths since the virus was first identified in the island in early 2020. Significantly, however, 98.5 per cent of the deaths since March 2021 – 2,030 out of the 2,065 were people who were unvaccinated. Further, on January 23, of the hospitalised patients whose vaccination status was confirmed, over 96 per cent were not inoculated.
Yet, confronting pushbacks by anti-vaxxers, vaccine sceptics and people who may be genuinely concerned about the safety of the drugs because of assumptions about the speed with which they were developed, the Holness administration has found it difficult to encourage the large swathes of Jamaicans to take the drugs. Indeed, in a number of instances, the health authorities have been forced to discard tens of thousands of doses of vaccines that passed their date for use. The same thing is expected to happen again.
NO EXPECTATION TO MEET TARGET
Against this backdrop, there is now little expectation, including among policymakers, that the Government will meet its March deadline for vaccinating at least 65 per cent of the population – the amount it originally set for achieving herd immunity. This expected failure is being exacerbated by the emergence of new, more contagious variants of the virus, and is bolstering the position of independent experts who had argued that Jamaica needed to inoculate a higher proportion of its population, upwards of 80 per cent, to achieve that status.
Jamaica’s slow, and low, vaccine take-up last year triggered debate on whether the Government would, or should, institute vaccination mandates. But while some employers have insisted that their workers take the jab, or periodically provide proof, based on tests, that they are free of the virus (over which some employees have gone to court) the Government has meandered on the matter.
Last summer, Mr Holness stopped just short of ruling out any form of mandate. The Cabinet, he said, was sceptical that requiring people to take the jab, or forcing them into positions where doing so would be necessary, could stand up in court.
“In fact, we don’t believe that is something that would meet the constitutional test,” he said last August.
Later, however, Mr Holness appeared to jettison that position. But he indicated that there would be no mandates until any Jamaican who wants to be inoculated has easy access to vaccines. Any mandate, however called, would come after a major education campaign and his own swing around the island to promote vaccinations.
“There will come a time when we will have to insist upon people taking the vaccines or be restricted in certain ways,” Mr Holness said during one of these tours of a rural vaccination site.
He argued that unvaccinated people were easy hosts “for the reproduction and mutation of the virus”. That held consequences for those “who would have taken the vaccine” but faced the danger of being infected “by the mutated virus, for which the original vaccine they took would not be as effective”.
But since the latter part of 2021, Mr Holness has seemingly avoided any discussion of mandates. He also ruled out returning to shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19. That also slowed the economy.
The obligation, therefore, was on people themselves to get vaccinated.
Mr Holness, in the context of vaccination, has talked about the responsibility that comes with the freedoms and obligations people owe to their fellow citizens.
“I have said what the strategy is,” the prime minister said at a press conference a fortnight ago. “It is now in your hands. Go and take the vaccine. That is the strategy. We can’t hold you down and put the needle in your hand. If you get sick, you take that responsibility … . Go and get vaccinated. Argument done.” The argument, though, is not over. Governments do not simply extricate themselves from their responsibilities to citizens. It may be that proportionately fewer people are not getting as sick, or dying as much, in this wave as the previous one. Nonetheless, larger nominal numbers are becoming ill. Some of these get very sick. Some have died. More will. Cynical people might argue that it makes sense to allow things to run their course. In that scenario, sufficient people would contract the more infectious, but apparently less lethal Omicron variant, leading to herd immunity and COVID-19’s transition from a pandemic to an endemic disease. There is no certainty in this. And who knows what the cost might be?
In the event, being vaccinated greatly reduces the risk of people contracting the virus; and if they do, of becoming seriously ill or being sick over the long term. Moreover, certain behaviours, especially when they are likely to affect the well-being of the society, are not left to the conscience of the individual. Behaviours, in those circumstances, are regulated by the State. Limits may be instituted on individual rights, once they meet the constitutional test of being reasonable in a free and democratic society.