COVID-19 restrictions and human rights
As complexities mount over how to manage the global COVID-19 pandemic, the stage seems set for a collision between the measures being put in place and human rights. This much can be gleaned from the emerging scenario of a world adopting a vaccine passport to check the spread and simultaneously keep economies open.
Yet, even with vaccination on the upward swing, cases and deaths are equally rising in some areas, India and Brazil being typical current examples. More than anything, an emerging certainty is that the world is still far from a permanent solution to coronavirus and that corporate resolutions must be guided from infringing individual preferences. And above all, caution and keeping of safety protocols remain high imperatives.
Reports indicate that despite vaccine hesitancy over issues of efficacy and side effects, as well as procurement challenges, more countries, airlines and destinations have endorsed the COVID-19 vaccine passport regime, especially as the promise of summer travel is becoming more real after the lull in last year’s summer travels due to lockdown and restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.
The endorsement, currently pushed as a global agenda, is certain to affect air travel and raise fresh hurdles for the travelling public. Globally, more than three million people have now died from the coronavirus. The vaccine passport – in the form of certificates or digital cards testifying to the low-risk status of their holders – promises to reopen the world and perhaps return lives to normal.
But its subtle implication of compulsory vaccination for all air travellers raises fundamental questions of a more divided and discriminatory world.
Some countries, most of them with economies dependent on tourism, are pushing ahead either with real vaccine passport plans or allowing vaccinated visitors to skip quarantine requirements for entry. The private sector, most notably cruise lines and airlines, is also excited about it.
Many countries including Nigeria have instituted COVID-19 restrictions to travel. Some of these restrictions require COVID-19 testing, others do not allow travel except in emergencies.
However, bearing in mind the huge controversy surrounding it, a global vaccine passport for COVID-19 at this time will be inappropriate and premature. At present, the science of COVID-19 is not precise but dodgy and remains an uncharted terrain, including a number of shots, frequency, efficacy and side effects. Scientists no doubt are still in search of a solution to coronavirus.
Therefore, the imposition of a vaccine passport will go against the fundamental human rights of the citizens to free choice and free movement. This notion is thought to be supported by the ruling, on January 27, this year, of the European Court of Human Rights, sponsored by the Council of Europe which in its resolution 2361/2021, among other things, held that no one can be vaccinated against their will, under pressure. The 47 Member States (all European states except Belarus, Kosovo and the Vatican) were invited to report before vaccination that vaccination is not compulsory and that unvaccinated person should not be discriminated against. Discrimination is also expressly prohibited where there are existing health risks or if a person does not wish to be vaccinated.
Whatever gain the resolution might have achieved for opponents of compulsory vaccination however appears to have been wiped clean by the more recent ruling of the court in Strasbourg that compulsory vaccinations would not contravene human rights law — and may be necessary for democratic societies.
The ruling came following the evaluation of a complaint brought to the court by Czech families regarding compulsory jabs for children. “The measures could be regarded as being necessary for a democratic society,” the court judgment read.
Although the ruling did not deal directly with COVID-19 vaccines, experts believe it could have implications for the vaccination drive against the virus, especially for those who have so far stated a refusal to accept the jab. This does not mean, however, that European countries will force people to be vaccinated
If anything, the context of these judgements has further increased the controversy not only on the solution to coronavirus but also the propriety of restricting people’s movement on account of choice against vaccination which some still regard as an infringement of the right to freedom of movement. Ipso facto, anyone is free to voluntarily take the vaccine; and no one should be forced to take it. Notwithstanding, those unwilling to take the vaccine should make themselves available for testing if required.
It is important to stress, however, that even with its limited acceptance worldwide, the various COVID-19 vaccines are believed to be playing a key role in the management of the pandemic, notwithstanding that its long-term effects are yet unknown. The vaccination is being likened to the age-old yellow fever health vaccination card in use for ages. Therefore, people should protect themselves with the vaccine, even with some uncertainty in it. COVID-19 is real and is killing people by the thousands.
While people should be encouraged to get the jab because humanity needs to confront the pandemic; they should not be stampeded into it now that the world is still undergoing trials for vaccines and other measures to curb coronavirus. People should be allowed to avail themselves of maximum information to enable them to make informed decision to be vaccinated or not. Thus, the plan, indirectly, to make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is premature because the vaccine, at present, remains work-in-progress.
Therefore, the UN should spearhead opposition to the imposition of vaccine passport; and unvaccinated people should not be discriminated against because they have chosen to wait to know the long-term effects before reaching a conclusion on the safety of the vaccines.
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