A situation is emerging where vaccination has been transformed from a private choice into a mobilisation tool of the state to combat the pandemic, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Over the past month, more and more countries have begun to announce mandatory vaccination against coronavirus for certain segments of the population, usually associated with certain professions. As a rule, those obliged to get vaccinated work in management, the service sector (food, trade, transport), etc. Also, in many cases, compulsory vaccination has affected higher education — both teachers and students. To what extent this measure violates human rights (the right to work, the right to education, the right to an informed choice in the field of health care) is debatable and complex, although in fact, it’s a simple question. Obviously there is a violation. The essence of the matter is only in the balance between the interests of the whole society and/or the state, on the one hand, and human rights, on the other. In the context of an ongoing pandemic and serious distrust among citizens regarding new vaccines and public health policy in a number of countries, the choice of an optimal and acceptable version of this balance is becoming the focus of public discourse. The Valdai Discussion Club held a special round table dedicated to the impact of vaccination on human rights.
We discussed various national strategies on this issue, as well as common approaches within the framework of the general principles of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. But since this roundtable was held, the global trend towards compulsory vaccination for certain professions has only intensified, so from our side it seems justified to turn to this topic again.
During the expert discussion on this topic, the “vaccine race” was repeatedly mentioned as a facsimile of the arms race, and the desire to maximise the global coverage and share of the global vaccine market on the part of the main manufacturers and their supporting states. One of the consequences of this competition is that there are different lists of approved vaccines in different countries, which do not always coincide with each other. Accordingly, the world has not developed a homogeneous global vaccine space from a legal point of view.
This has already found its reflection in vaccine passports, and in introducing them, states recognise some vaccines and do not recognise others. Another aspect of the same problem has been the dramatic changes to the visa and entry policies of a number of states. In some cases, the receiving state (country A) makes it a condition for a foreigner not only to get a PCR test before entering, but demands that he or she get vaccinated using a vaccine approved by that state. If a foreigner comes from a country B, where these vaccines are not registered and completely different ones are approved, a vicious circle emerges. Despite the fact that a foreigner has been vaccinated with a real vaccine, he or she will not be able to enter country A, since his vaccine is not approved there, and he or she cannot get the vaccine required for country A in his country B, because it is not approved there, and vice versa. This has a serious negative impact on the restoration of global mobility, both in the tourism and business sectors and in the cross-border labor market, as it discourages foreign workers from entering or returning to the country where they used to work. Accordingly, the vaccine is becoming an instrument of restrictive migration policy.
In this context, the compulsory vaccination requirement for certain occupations and industries, when combined with this barrier to entry, serves as a protectionist barrier in the labour market. It is no secret that in a number of areas where countries introduce compulsory vaccination (public catering, trade, public transport), the share of foreign workers is traditionally high. As a result, they lose their right to work. Or, at best, if they are allowed into the country, after being vaccinated with a vaccine A in their home country, they will have to re-inoculate with a completely different vaccine B in the country where they want to work.
This problem can be especially acute for foreign students. Foreign migrant workers, for the most part, remained in the host countries after the closure of the borders. Foreign students in a number of countries were forced to almost completely leave for their homeland, dormitories were closed under quarantine conditions, and they studied only remotely for an entire year and a half because of the pandemic. Now they are again deprived of the right to full-time education, either due to the impossibility of entering their country of study due to mismatched vaccines, or they will also have to be re-vaccinated with a different vaccine. And this is if they make an informed choice in favour of vaccinations at all. The right to refuse vaccination has been taken away from them by definition, and compulsory vaccination introduced for full-time students.
As a result, decisions on the mandatory vaccination of students can deal a serious negative blow to the strategies of individual universities and states to attract foreign students and to promote their universities in global educational rankings. Meanwhile, this is the key KPI for many national educational strategies (whether such a KPI is justified or not is another question, but now it is a given). As a result, a whole chain of negativity is launched: foreign students cannot continue to study, new foreign students, knowing about their experience, refuse to enter universities in this or that country, universities lose funding sources, salaries and funds for research projects are cut, and teachers decide to quit, sometimes because they consider the requirement of mandatory vaccination to be contrary to their right to choose their own health strategy, which they consciously consider optimal for themselves. As a result, the entire educational policy of the state, on which a lot of effort and resources were spent in previous years, becomes a victim of this mandatory vaccination. This is, of course, an extreme scenario, but quite real, and in a number of cases already observed in practice. Including, unfortunately, the dismissal of good teachers who do not agree with mandatory vaccination.As a result, a situation is emerging where vaccination has been transformed from a private choice into a mobilisation tool of the state to combat the pandemic. One of the criteria used in the practice of the European Court of Human Rights is the criterion of proportionality. Its essence lies in the extent to which this or that state measure, restricting human rights, is proportional to the problem that caused it. On the one hand, there seem to be no questions here: a dangerous epidemic that takes many lives, obviously, requires states to take measures to overcome it. On the other hand, the factor of society being objectively tired after the 18 months-long pandemic amid a lack of mutual trust with authorities in a number of countries around the world also plays its role. Compulsory vaccination will obviously only increase this social discontent. In addition to the general restrictions on human rights associated with compulsory vaccination, in our opinion, there are two areas where this imbalance can manifest itself especially sharply. These are migrant workers and higher education. The future will show, how much the medium-term social negativity accumulated here will be proportionate to the task of vaccination.