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COVID-19 and enforcement of compulsory vaccination policy, By Isaac N Obasi

Covid-19 vaccination

From all indications, COVID-19 pandemic is a very controversial, divisive and manifestly a conflict-ridden phenomenon. Right from its emergence in Wuhan, China in 2019, not a few people across the world doubted its reality. This phenomenal and disturbing doubt of COVID-19 existence prompted international and national health authorities to adopt this well-known risk communication catch-phrase COVID-19 is real. But even at this, some notable political leaders (like Donald Trump, former president of the United States of America; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, late president of Tanzania John Magufuli, and late president of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza to mention just a few), doubted its existence for sheer political and selfish reasons. And as a result, there emerged many irrational sceptics of COVID-19 around the world. Many have remained so up to this moment regardless of the high fatalities recorded globally.

But apart from its early controversy, COVID-19 pandemic has also created and continues to create divisions, acrimony and manifest conflict between citizens and their governments around the world. The division and acrimony started with the adoption of different forms of non-pharmaceutical safety interventions such as lockdowns, wearing of face masks, prohibition of large social gathering and in-door crowding of people, and maintenance of social distancing among others. Many people were seen publicly not complying with these safety measures that were introduced by their governments. And in some countries, there emerged a constant stream of protests and demonstrations against these measures. 

The most controversial of these non-pharmaceutical safety interventions in some countries then, was the policy on compulsory wearing of face masks in public places. In the United States for instance, many people (particularly in the Republican Party) vehemently opposed the wearing of face masks. Some people with their young children even went to the extent of burning their face masks publicly,  arguing that it was a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental human rights to liberty. To them, their freedom to do what they want was paramount, regardless of the risk the exercise of such freedom poses to public health. In many other countries, the protests against the wearing of face masks have not died down up to this moment.

The arrival of the discovery of vaccines (as antidotes to the deadly virus) generated even more controversies, divisions and outright conflict in many countries as well. Many vaccine critics emerged in both the developed and developing countries. This again became a major challenge and concern to many governments across the world. The vaccine critics were not swayed by the glaring fact of the high fatality rate of the ravaging virus. For example, as of 23 September 2021 (at 13:21), the world recorded a total number of 230,189,529 cases of infections, and 4,721,127 deaths (Courtesy of John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, via https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html). With about 230 million cases of infections globally, and close to five million deaths, many people are still not persuaded that vaccination is imperative. Their insensitivity to the danger which non-vaccination poses to public health is a very worrisome issue. This is where various governments around the world have responded to vaccine obstinacy by adopting one policy measure or the other in the interest of public health. Some countries have for instance made vaccination compulsory for their public servants and as a condition for entering public offices and for accessing services provided by the government.

In Nigeria, the Federal Government had announced that it was planning to make vaccination compulsory for its workers. Meanwhile, it has been using moral persuasion to appeal to vaccine critics and ‘hesitants’ to get vaccinated because it is safe to do so. However, some state governments have gone ahead to make vaccination compulsory for their workers and for others who want to access services provided by them. They were compelled to do so because their appeal to the conscience of the people was not yielding the desired results. The first state government to announce the adoption of a compulsory vaccination policy was Edo State. This was closely followed by Ondo State. A couple of other states have followed. Osun State is the latest to make vaccination compulsory for public servants. 

The policy in Edo State stated that those “who have not taken COVID-19 vaccines will be prevented from accessing churches, mosques, banks, event centres and other public places from the middle of September”. The Ondo State Government also adopted a similar policy of barring people entering churches, mosques and other public places if they fail to take the vaccines on or before 14 September 2021.

In Edo State, the implementation of this policy has generated a lot of controversies. First, there was a huge demonstration by people in the state. Secondly the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the health workers in the state under the umbrella of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) criticised the adoption of the policy very seriously. The NMA argued that the “people have the right to reject vaccines the same way they can reject medical treatment”, while JOHESU called the adoption of the policy senseless. In addition, the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, Rivers State granted an order restraining the Edo State Government from enforcing the policy. In spite of these criticisms and demonstration, Edo State commenced the enforcement of the policy. 

This column had in the past criticised a hasty implementation of a compulsory vaccination policy during the first phase of the vaccination exercise, arguing that the vaccines were not yet available to make  compulsory vaccination a policy. However, in this second phase when the Federal Government has received a sizeable quantity of different vaccines, a policy on compulsory vaccination makes sense. This is the way to go in the interest of public health. In any case, the policy is becoming a global best practice as no one can travel to some countries presently without showing evidence of having been vaccinated. Again, across the world, many COVID-19-related deaths that are recorded now are predominantly among the unvaccinated. This being the case, compulsory vaccination is the way to go. 

The enforcement of the compulsory vaccination policy in Edo State is progressing successfully. The enforcement is necessary because the five deaths that were reported few days ago (on September 21, 2021) were among the unvaccinated. This underscores the need to get vaccinated. This column encourages other states to adopt the policy on compulsory vaccination.    

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].  

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