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Collective safety versus individual liberty

Collective safety versus individual liberty

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THE GOVERNMENT OF St Vincent and the Grenadines is poised 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 Public Health Act to require certain categories of employees in the public sector to take the vaccine in order to work in certain specified “frontline” jobs. The choice of working or not working 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 loosely comprising St. Vincent’s anti-vaccine movement are opposed to this proposed amendment. More surprising 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 is opposed to mandatory vaccination.

Indeed, he himself is fully vaccinated.

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

But the truly magnificent feature of vaccination lies not with the benefits it confers to the specific individual. Rather, the magic lies in the benefits which vaccination bequeaths to an entire population. It protects the individual; and it protects those around him. Indeed, in numbers newly released by the Centers for Disease Control, 99.999 percent of fully vaccinated Americans have not had a deadly Covid 19 breakthrough case. Put another way, that is 1 in 100,000. Or, if vaccinated, the complete protection of the Vincentian population.

The problem we currently confront in SVG however, is this: far too few Vincentians are vaccinated. We do not have a population that is completely protected from Covid 19. Rather, we have a population that remains terribly at risk from an explosion of Covid 19 infections which could quickly overwhelm our health system and bring our country to its knees. We have seen this elsewhere. We do not wish to see it here.

The peculiar problem that the amendment to the public health act seeks to solve is how to protect the broader Vincentian collective without violating the rights of the individual. And it seeks to do this by ensuring that the government has the right to deem that specific occupations require vaccinations, whilst maintaining that an individual has the right to refuse employment in a job that requires vaccination.

Some Vincentians reject this distinction. They hold that to require vaccination in any job is in and of itself a coercive act. Left unclear, however, is how they would guarantee that an unvaccinated worker would not infect his/her co-workers or the public with this deadly disease.

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

Every one of these encounters brings with it the opportunity 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. Quite literally, in this moment of a deadly pandemic, deciding whether these frontline workers should be vaccinated or not is a life and death decision.

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

In the USA, France, and Italy, we are also aware that these countries are imposing mandates across a range of civic life as they grapple with the same dilemma – protecting the broader collective while maintaining the rights of the individual. In truth, every single country in the world is confronting this question.

This much is clear. The individual’s right not to take a vaccine 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 his 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 take the vaccine. But the individual cannot claim the right to a job from which he can infect others.

This is the balance of interests that the proposed amendment seeks to bridge. The right to life supersedes all other rights. Without it there is no liberty to enjoy. This amendment is a necessary bridge.