With the government starting to vaccinate people against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) this week, Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez said the economy could return to pre-pandemic levels earlier than 2023. That is, if the government can also help businesses find ways to go about their affairs despite existing quarantine restrictions in the meantime.
But how can we allow businesses to operate at higher capacity if in the business and financial district — Makati City — the number of active COVID-19 cases has gone up considerably in the last 10 days? From 261 on Feb. 21, active cases have gone up to 435 as of March 1. That’s a total of 174 cases in nine days, or an average of 19 new cases daily.
There is always the concern that further easing of quarantine restrictions or allowing greater capacity for businesses and transportation can lead to more cases. And while President Duterte proposes to shift the country to the most lenient quarantine level only after more vaccine doses are in-country, at this point, a lot of people seem reluctant to actually take them.
Changing mindsets about vaccines is the great challenge now for both the government and the private sector. While Makati City, for instance, may have the resources to purchase vaccines, there is a big chance that city residents and workers might refuse inoculation. The same goes for businesses that intend to purchase vaccines for their employees.
Legal and medical experts should chime in on whether COVID-19 vaccination should be mandatory or compulsory. While pandemics are not actually unprecedented, COVID-19 is. The same goes for its repercussions on people’s lives and the global economy. The devastation that has resulted from it, not to mention the millions of deaths worldwide, is extraordinary.
What we have now presents an interesting case for bioethics, in my opinion. If the state’s regulation of healthcare is intended to ensure the protection of lives and the promotion of the greatest public good, but at the same time acknowledging that COVID-19 vaccines are generally “experimental,” should we even consider administering them? Can we make inoculation compulsory for all, or even for just a sector like healthcare workers?
Any action related to this will have short-, mid-, and long-term implications not only on public health but also in terms of abridging freedoms. There are ethical, legal, and practical considerations. Is there similarity, for instance, between “to vaccine or not to vaccine” and “to mask or not to mask”? If we can compel the wearing of masks, why can we not compel vaccination? People drafting guidelines for the distribution of vaccines should strive for consensus among different stakeholders.
I am sure there are many valid and substantiated arguments for or against compulsory vaccination. Personally, I am not in favor of compulsory or mandatory vaccination for COVID-19. And I am just as worried as the common folk about having to get an experimental vaccine. However, if an overwhelming majority refuse vaccination, then herd immunity may not happen, what then will the implications be on public health and economic recovery?
Ignorant me didn’t use to think much of vaccines. In fact, as a child in the 1970s, I don’t even recall getting vaccines except for the occasional anti-polio sugar lumps distributed in school. And, there was this one time when my siblings and I, prior to travel abroad, were all required to get smallpox vaccination from the Bureau of Quarantine. We were issued yellow cards, which were attached to our passports, as proof of inoculation.
As an adult, I was a bit annoyed when my son’s pediatrician insisted on going beyond the minimum vaccination regime. Being an infectious disease expert, she was a big believer of vaccines, and insisted that my son receive all the most important ones. At one point, she even made me get a chickenpox vaccination along with my son since I have never had chickenpox, and have no record of vaccination either.
But, to her credit, my son is rarely sick. And when he does get sick, it has never been serious in any way. So, while I may have had my doubts about the importance of vaccines, her insistence on them actually paid off for us. So, my personal answer is yes on the question of whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
But, if only 1 out of 100 will feel the same way about vaccination, then the overall inoculation process may be for naught. COVID-19 will continue to cause severe symptoms or even death. A large portion of the population will continue to be at risk, and only a low level of immunity will be achieved. People will continue to be anxious about going about their lives.
In a Feb. 16 report in The Straits Times by Indonesian Correspondent Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, he wrote that “Indonesia has made coronavirus vaccination for citizens compulsory,” and that “people who are eligible for vaccination but refuse a jab can be penalized” with fines, delays or suspension of social aids, or delays or suspension of access to public services.
States have the authority to manage public health, and proof of this is the fact that we have been undergoing some level of quarantine for almost a year now. Restrictions have been imposed on movement, and even our ability to work as we please has been curtailed. Restrictions are set both at the national and local levels. But as far as mandatory vaccination is concerned, the extent of this authority may require a legal test.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council