Collective security versus individual freedom

Posted on

THE GOVERNMENT OF Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is set to make an amendment to our public health laws which, in the words of the Prime Minister, would empower the government “to make rules under the Law on public health to require certain categories of employees in the public sector to be vaccinated in order to work in certain specified “front line” jobs. The choice to work or not to work in a particular job which requires vaccination in the interest of public health will be that of the employee.

Unsurprisingly, the assortment of individuals and groups vaguely understanding the Saint-Vincent anti-vaccine movement oppose this proposed amendment. More surprisingly, however, is that Dr. Lorraine Friday, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, is also strongly opposed to this proposed amendment. Dr Friday’s position is that while he supports vaccination, he opposes compulsory vaccination.

Indeed, he himself is fully vaccinated.

In a purely scientific sense, the benefits that vaccination confers on a vaccinated person are independent of the means by which a person is vaccinated. Vaccination by persuasion is preferable. But compulsion vaccination produces the same result. And in the case of covid 19 vaccines, it is scientific certainty that a fully vaccinated person is 25 times less likely to die from Covid 19 than an unvaccinated person.

But the truly magnificent feature of vaccination is not in the benefits it confers on the particular individual. Rather, the magic lies in the benefits that vaccination bequeaths to an entire population. It protects the individual; and he protects those around him. Indeed, in figures recently released by the Centers for Disease Control, 99.999% of fully vaccinated Americans have not had a fatal case of Covid 19. In other words, it’s 1 in 100,000. Or, if vaccinated, the complete protection of the Vincentian population.

However, the problem we are currently facing in SVG is this: far too few Vincentians are vaccinated. We do not have a population totally protected from Covid 19. On the contrary, we have a population which remains terribly threatened by an explosion of Covid 19 infections which could quickly overwhelm our health system and bring our country to its knees. We have seen it elsewhere. We don’t want to see it here.

The particular problem that the amendment to the law on public health seeks to solve is how to protect the Vincentian collective at large without violating the rights of the individual. And it seeks to do so by ensuring that the government has the right to view specific occupations as requiring vaccinations, while maintaining that an individual has the right to refuse employment in a job that requires vaccination.

Some Vincentians reject this distinction. They argue that requiring vaccination in any job is itself a coercive act. It is unclear, however, how they would ensure that an unvaccinated worker did not infect colleagues or the public with this deadly disease.

This is by no means a hypothetical question. Teachers interact with their students in confined classrooms. Nurses and physicians have very close physical interactions with their patients. Police may be called upon to arrest individuals, sometimes in contusion challenges.

Each of these encounters brings with it the possibility of being infected or infecting someone else. In fact, the Covid 19 Delta variant is extraordinarily transmissible, infecting individuals within five minutes of exposure to the virus. Literally, in this time of a deadly pandemic, deciding whether or not these frontline workers should be vaccinated is a life or death decision.

Some countries like China have, in fact, deployed state power in ways Vincentians cannot conceive of – literally quarantining tens of millions of people to isolate and suppress Covid 19.

In the United States, France and Italy, we are also aware that these countries impose mandates across a range of civic life as they grapple with the same dilemma: protecting the collective at large while preserving the individual rights. In truth, all the countries of the world are faced with this question.

It’s clear. The right of the individual not to be vaccinated is no more important than the right of the community to be protected from individuals transmitting a deadly pathogen. An employer’s obligation to protect its workforce and customers from a deadly virus cannot be secondary to an individual’s right to refuse a vaccine. The individual always retains the right not to be vaccinated. But the individual cannot claim the right to a job from which he can infect others.

It is the balance of interests that the proposed amendment seeks to address. The right to life takes precedence over all other rights. Without it, there is no freedom to enjoy. This amendment is a necessary bridge.