We know that Covid-19 is a serious virus that has taken the lives of some 4.2 million people worldwide. We know that the vaccines, while not providing perfect protection, significantly reduce the likelihood of someone contracting the virus and dying as a result of it. We also know that high rates of immunisation will result in better protection for whole populations.
But here is something else we know: not everyone makes identical decisions in life. Thus, not everyone will choose to be vaccinated. This shouldn’t strike us as particularly unusual.
While the vast majority of us will graduate from high school, not everyone will. Most eventually get a driver’s license and a car, but some choose not to. Home ownership is a lifelong dream for the average person, but a minority of people couldn’t care less.
Liberal democracies, like Australia’s, have always recognised this feature of humanity. In explaining “Australian values” to visa holders, the Department of Home Affairs features “respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual” at the very top of its list.
We can be persuaded to do all sorts of things — especially when the health and safety of others comes into play. But for something as personal as a medical decision, individuals in consultation with their GP will and should ultimately decide what is best for them.
Australia has long affirmed this. The Australian Immunisation Handbook, for instance, explains that vaccines “must be given voluntarily in the absence of undue pressure, coercion or manipulation. Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights agrees:
Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information.
Two years ago, almost no one was advocating for a rejection of these standards. But today, many do, arguing that the taking of a Covid-19 vaccine should be mandated — or at least coerced through the use of vaccine certificates that would effectively exclude from daily life any who opt out of the treatment.
The onus is on those presenting this idea to justify it.
Why should we annul our human rights obligations at home and abroad in the case of Covid-19? And if it can be justified in this instance, what is the limiting principle that will prevent the gradual and then ultimate erosion of these once-sacred standards?
After all, they were put in place for good reason. For historically frightful reasons, in fact.
If Covid-19 had proven to be among the deadliest pandemics in history — or if the efficacy of these specific vaccines were near-perfect — there might be a good case for suspending our human rights obligations in order to expedite the vaccine rollout. But the current situation simply does not call for it.
Thankfully, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given voice to the need for informed consent. “We have responsibility for our own health,” he said in a press conference this week. It “is necessary for us to form our own view about what’s best for us and, and be able to give that informed consent,” he added.
But this message has since become murky. Yesterday he said to 3AW host Neil Mitchell:
We’d have to have more restrictions on people who are unvaccinated because they’re a danger to themselves and others… If you’re not vaccinated you present a greater health risk to yourself and to others than people who are vaccinated… and public health decisions will have to be made on that basis.
So which is it? Consent or coercion? Either people are making the decision to get vaccinated of their own volition — or under whispered threats that their once-inviolable freedoms will be withheld from them until they do.
Morrison may yet make good on these threats. Asked earlier this month by journalists why he would not introduce such measures, he replied, “I didn’t say we wouldn’t”. He then clarified that it would be up to the states, not the Commonwealth, to introduce the relevant restrictions. “I can provide them with the tools that helps then to implement them, like the digital vaccine certificates,” he said, explaining that “state governments can place restrictions on people entering a venue, entering a place of work, things like this.”
For context, Australia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms “equal protection against any discrimination” (Article 7); “the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state” (Article 13); and “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work” (Article 23) for all people.
Indeed, as distinguished law professor Augusto Zimmermann has argued, under the Australian Constitution itself, “vaccination should only be through voluntary means in accordance with the free communications between medical doctor and patient”, and ”no government, either federal or state, can impose compulsory vaccination in this country.”
As far as vaccination is concerned, Australian governments can persuade, inspire, and convince. They can make an incredibly good case for why every Australian should be vaccinated and can spend endless amounts of money in order to do so. And they can chalk it down as a win when the majority are won over and decide to take the jab.
But they cannot coerce. To do so is neither right, safe, nor Australian.