The Supreme Court of India on Monday said that no one can be forced to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and that there be no restrictions on unvaccinated people in public areas till coronavirus infections are low.
The apex court’s comments have come amid an ongoing debate on vaccine mandates, with its advocates saying vaccination requirements and restrictions on the unvaccinated are justified for the larger public good and its critics flagging their individual freedom.
These discussions have at times become highly polarised, particularly in the West religious beliefs and arguments on personal freedom have clashed with public health concerns.
Here is all you need to know about the debate, available research on the subject, and what the courts have said on the issue.
What are vaccine mandates and are they effective?
A vaccine mandate requires you to take the coronavirus vaccine in order to do certain things, such as working, travelling, or attending an event.
It does not mean you would be physically made to have a vaccine. It means that you could be legally stopped from places where it’s mandated.
One argument in favour of mandates is that people don’t do something until they are required to do it. There is some data to support this with regard to coronavirus vaccination.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security cited the example of meatpacking giant Tyson Foods, which announced a vaccine mandate for its approximately 1,20,000 workers in August 2021. “By November, 60,500 previously unvaccinated employees had received the shot, bringing the company-wide vaccination rate to 96 per cent,” noted an article on Johns Hopkins website.
Forbes cited data from New York City and California. In NY City, over 15,000 teachers got their first vaccine within a week’s time of the announcement of a vaccine mandate. In California, Kaiser Permanente, which employs over 3,00,000 people, said its employee vaccination rate rose from around 78 per cent to 97 per cent after the state announced a mandate.
While research has shown that mandates are effective at preventing Covid-19, the World Health Organization has called them “a last resort”.
However, the EU-funded Asset project, which looks at the impact of mandatory vaccination in a number of countries, found no clear link between the approach and vaccine uptake, as per a report in The Guardian.
What are arguments against vaccine mandates?
There are several arguments against vaccine mandates, which range from anti-vaccine sentiment, religious beliefs disallowing vaccination, and individual freedom that states that a person might get vaccinated on their own but that should not be an institutional compulsion.
Several people who are pro-vaccine and have been vaccinated, such as world’s richest person Elon Musk, oppose mandates on grounds of personal freedom. They argue that people should be urged and convinced to get vaccinated but should not be forced.
I’m pro vaccination, but anti vaccination mandate— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 6, 2022
Musk has called vaccine mandates an erosion of personal freedom.
Recent research finds unvaccinated people threaten vaccinated
While a section of people argue that it’s their choice to get vaccinated, recent research has shown that their choice affects others as well.
A study published last month by researchers from Canada's University of Toronto found that when unvaccinated people mix with the vaccinated, the vaccinated people have more infections. In simpler terms, the choice of unvaccinated people harms the vaccinated more.
David Fisman of the University of Toronto said in a statement, "Many opponents of vaccine mandates have framed vaccine adoption as a matter of individual choice. However, we found that the choices made by people who forgo vaccination contribute disproportionately to risk among those who do get vaccinated."
The researchers noted that it’s people’s right to not get vaccinated but they said their choice overlooks the potential harm to the wider community.
What have courts said on vaccine mandates?
Besides Monday's comments on forced vaccination, the Supreme Court of India last month upheld a vaccine mandate in Karnataka in the “wider national interest”.
Dismissing a petition against a Karnataka government’s notification in July 2021 saying that students, teachers, and non-teaching staff could only attend colleges after receiving at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, the apex court had said, “We will not entertain this. Take your vaccines. In the wider national interest there are some matters which we should not be entertaining.”
The Supreme Court of the United States in January rejected President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate that would have made private companies with over 100 employees to have mandatory vaccination or weekly testing.
However, the Court upheld a US federal regulation that mandated vaccines for almost all employees at hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare providers receiving federal funds.
(With PTI inputs)