Mandatory vaccination: does Covid-19 pose a serious enough threat to override the Constitution?

If we – just for a second – set aside whatever merit there may be to any and all arguments either for or against mandatory vaccination, one thing has become clear – it is an issue that has rapidly ripped through and divided our society. Though very few signs of the Rainbow Nation that South Africa fought so hard for remain – it is critical to remember the Constitutional principles with which we entered our era of democracy in 1994. One of these Constitutionally-enshrined principles is set out in Section 12(2)(b) of the Constitution and states that: ‘everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right … to security in and control over their body’. In the spirit of another equally important and Constitutionally-enshrined right – our freedom of expression – this is, of course, open to interpretation. In this article by Dave Matthews, retired Cape Town author and commentator, it is put forth that the implementation of mandatory vaccination in our country would give the state the ‘moral right to override the Constitution.’ Justification behind arguments in favour of mandatory vaccination are predominantly based on the best interests of society and public health and how these, when weighed up against the autonomy and rights of individuals to exercise their right not to get vaccinated, should take priority ‘given the current circumstances.’ While the Constitution does make provision for the limitation of an individual’s right to bodily integrity, these limitations are and must – for crucial reasons – never be taken or exercised lightly. The debate has, perhaps, never before been as relevant as it is today with the issue of mandatory vaccination weighing upon South Africa. – Nadya Swart

Why mandatory Covid-19 vaccination is a very, very bad idea

By Dave Matthews*

The argument against mandatory vaccination is based upon the protection offered by the constitutionally – enshrined democratic human rights aimed at protecting every citizen against coercion. Particularly, these are the rights to bodily integrity and to be free of all forms of violence from either private or public sources. 

The argument for mandatory vaccination is based upon the claim that it is reasonable that the interests of society as a whole should take precedence over those of the individual under certain circumstances. Those circumstances would be when society as a whole would be worse off if the constitution were not violated in the manner proposed, than if it were violated.

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, those for mandatory vaccination argue in essence that society would be better off if the unknown number of people who would catch COVID-19 and die of it – if everybody were not eventually vaccinated – did not die. Those who argue against mandatory vaccination claim in essence that the cost to society as a whole would be far higher than the lives of a relatively insignificant number of people if vaccines were made mandatory, because the state would have been given the moral right to override the Constitution whenever it wished to, on the ambiguous grounds that doing so was in the interests of society as a whole. 

At what point may the interests of society as a whole be rationally said to override those of the individual? If COVID-19 threatened to kill a quarter of the population (15,275,0000 people) they no doubt could rationally be said to do so. So far it is killing annually what TB does every year – roughly 56,000. Where are the calls for a TB pandemic declaration? The constitutionally-protected human rights are there for a very good reason – to protect each person against the ravages and violence of government. To sacrifice a vital political protection for a very minor and unquantifiable medical benefit is questionable, to say the least.

  • Dave Matthews is a retired Cape Town author and commentator.

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