As of November 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred over 250 million cases and taken the lives of over 5 million worldwide. Though it has been two years since the first reported case of this new strand of the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus, its impacts have not stopped leaving their mark: countries are reporting or anticipating a fifth wave of infection; others are on the verge of a renewed national lockdown, and others, still, are urging towards a third dose of the vaccine for risk groups.
It seems the world might yet need to adapt to this ever-evolving health crisis. The glimmer of hope in recent times has come in the form of a Digital COVID Certificate, which indicates either full vaccination, immunisation (due to recent recovery), or negative test result. It provides support in ensuring restrictions can be lifted in a coordinated manner. Among other scenarios, it exempts the holder from free movement restrictions and enables larger capacity inside closed venues. As of late, countries have considered and begun to impose vaccination mandates as a labour requirement, which is being met with mixed responses.
In the United States, where an average of about 1,100 – mostly unvaccinated – Americans are dying daily from COVID-19, President Joe Biden has declared such a mandate. It states workers at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly starting the 4th of January 2022 – affecting around 84 million workers. Workers in healthcare facilities and nursing homes, participating in the Medicare and Medicaid government healthcare programs, are also required to get their shots. Failure to comply is expected to trigger fines of about $14,000 per violation, with a chance to increase. Washington’s declaration was met almost immediately with opposition from Florida, Iowa, and Indiana governors, who argued infringement on individual freedom. Lawyers and companies, opposing the federal vaccination mandate, have been successful in interrupting its implementation, following an Appeal’s Court ruling. Nonetheless, there seems to be majority support of the vaccine mandates among citizens, with only about 1% of the total workforce refusing to comply with these measures.
In Europe, however a similar majority public support, these mandates have been met by a larger labour force and populace opposition.
Italy, the first European country to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for healthcare workers and where vaccination rates stand at around 85%, has seen an increase in the periodicity, size and hostility of protests. The country’s Green Pass, compulsory for all employees as well as customers at all public or private sector workplaces, has been accused of undermining individual freedoms and of damaging the economy by the centre-right block. This sentiment seems to be growing among the general populace since Italy’s health ministry extended the use of the Covid-19 health pass system until March of 2022, led by a significant increase in positive cases week-on-week.
Similarly, attempts to mandate vaccination in France have been met with public backlash. In July of 2021, President Emmanuel Macron issued an ultimatum for public and private healthcare workers to be vaccinated. In September, still, tens of thousands remained unvaccinated and about 3000 workers were suspended without pay. Correspondingly, the immunity passport requirement was met with protests in Paris, Marseille, and other cities: some citing anti-vax sentiments; others pro-liberty; and others, still fed up with Macron. Nevertheless, the administration has not backed down from its efforts. Unlike the US, French courts say the “health pass” is constitutional, showing less judicial system resistance.
In contrast, the UK has not yet issued a mandate, requiring health workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 only by April of 2022. Though it might still be early to measure its impact, the high NHS staff vaccination rate – at around 90% – and the majority of public support in both Tory and Labour voters, would indicate low resignation from workers in protests.
Thus, the question arises as to the legitimacy of said mandates. The large debate centres around the right to freedom of choice. The majority advocates a utilitarian approach, claiming personal choice should not interfere with the wellbeing of the collective. Few preach freedom, equating vaccine mandates to a form of tyranny and oppression and evoking the Human Rights Act, which states any individual has the right to body autonomy and to refuse any medical treatment.
The latter holds that – though not a direct match to forced vaccination – the resulting social and economic conditions are indirect coercion mechanisms. The prohibition from entry into establishments and weakened job positions impairs return to normality.
Additionally, recent studies by Goldman economists estimate vaccination mandates may result in lower employment in the short run, resulting in refusal to comply.
Many argue, however, that this argument is used to mask the true driver of vaccine resistance: politics. One example can be found in US politics, where a successful vaccination campaign could mean a successful Biden administration, spurring the desire for agitation.
The utilitarian school of thought stands on the benefits of vaccination, defending vaccination compulsion against many diseases has been taking place for generations now and that the upsides outweigh any freedom of choice objection. Scientific testing and recent developments have provided evidence that (1) unvaccinated people are in higher risk of contraction, (2) are more infectious, and (3) are more likely to require hospitalisation, placing additional stress on the health care system. Mandates would, therefore, be expected to improve public health, decrease total infections and diminish contagion rates.
Furthermore, supporters are of the opinion that the predicted short-run unemployment will be more than offset by economic recovery and relaunching. During periods of high infection and death rates, consumption and spending fall, resulting in output contraction and lower employment rates. Thus, long-run recovery is possible only after the resolution of the public health crisis.
Though possibly not ideal, vaccination mandates have emerged as the contemporary solution to the two-year-long public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some view these measures as an attack on freedom of choice, the majority acceptance and support has driven its implementation from political debate to reality. It remains only to be seen if these mandates will enable the return to normality.
Sources: New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, France24, BBC, ABC News, NPR, CNBC, Politico
João Sande e Castro