It's been two years since words like "pandemic", "COVID-19" ,"social distancing" and "lockdown" became a prominent part of our daily vocabulary. No doubt a lot has changed since then; from safety measures and even more recently to the discovery of new variants known as "Omicron" and the "delta variant" each with their own peculiarities.
For many countries of the world, the silver lining in these dark COVID clouds has been the COVID-19 vaccines (mRNA vaccines). Although it does not (unlike most vaccines) make use of the live virus that causes COVID-19, the mRNA vaccines seek to boost immunity against COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization, vaccination is by far the most effective tool to protect people from COVID-19 even with the new emerging variants. Apart from individual protection and safety, a community also has a lot to gain if an overwhelming number of its population get vaccinated as this will eventually result in what is referred to as "herd immunity".
“If we have a shot at halting the spread of COVID-19, it would be through herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community has become immune to a particular disease. This can occur through natural infection or through vaccination.”
While natural infection is a more dangerous and impractical means of developing immunity against the COVID-19, mass vaccination seems to be a better alternative.
This is because natural infection will mean that there will be elevated mortality rates. Also, there is no society that has enough medical facilities to cater for the recovery of over 70 percent of its population from the virus as not less than 70 percent recovery rate is required to develop herd immunity.
Presently, many countries are walking towards herd immunity through vaccination by circulating and administering various variants of the vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson &Johnson.
Nigeria, on the other hand, is nowhere close to achieving herd immunity. According to Our World Data, as at 15th of December, 2021, while only 2 percent of the entire population have been fully vaccinated, 4 percent of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine in spite of the efforts made by the government to ensure that the vaccines are available and easily accessible. This goes to show that many Nigerians are " vaccine hesitant" due to a number of reasons.
Vaccine hesitancy has continued to pose a major challenge not only in Nigeria but in other countries of the world as well. Common objections to taking the vaccines are premised on side effects, religion objections, the fact many feel that taking the vaccine gives no added advantage as the statistics show no huge divide between the effect of the disease on those who had taken the vaccine compared to those who had not..
“In response to vaccine hesitancy, the Nigerian government has adopted a mandatory vaccination policy targeted at employees in the civil and public sector. The University of Ibadan for instance, apart from making sure its staff is vaccinated, has also put a policy in place to ensure that allocation of school hostels will only be available to students who have been vaccinated. This is in a bid to ensure that most, if not all of those within the school premises are vaccinated.”
The attempt of the government at mandatory vaccination has, rather than encourage citizens to get the vaccines, led to protests and sparked various conspiracy theories. While many debate the legality of such legislations, a lot of people believe that the government has no right to make such policies as this will amount to an infringement of the right to privacy, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination and right to religious life as contained in Section 37, Section 41, Section 42 and Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended.
Another major legal argument against compulsory vaccination would be that Nigeria is a democratic state, hence the government is not allowed to dictate to its citizens. While these arguments are legally valid, it is important that they are placed side by side with the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended in Section 45(1) which provides that
(1) Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society
(a) in the interest of defense, public safety, public
order, public morality or public health; or
(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.
This provision implies that the legislature is empowered to make legislations inconsistent with the provisions above provided it is reasonably justifiable in a democratic state in the interest of "public health" as well as for protecting the rights and "freedom of other persons"
In order to determine whether or not a law that imposes mandatory vaccination can be said to fall within the provisions of Section 45, it is important to take two steps back to consider why the government has chosen to ensure that it's citizens get vaccinated in the first place.
Apart from the responsibility imposed on every responsible government to ensure the safety of its citizens, herd vaccination as stated earlier has tremendous benefits for the entire population. There is therefore no reason to doubt that this proposed legislation will be to pursue a legitimate aim as COVID-19 poses a real threat to public health and public safety. This implies that should the legislature make a law in this regard, it can be said to be legally justified.
Another major point to consider about compulsory vaccination apart from its legality will be its effectiveness particularly in a society like Nigeria. History has it that the colonial administration of Nigeria in an earlier attempt to combat vaccine hesitancy introduced the Vaccination Ordinance of 1917 which was subsequently amended in 1945 to include compulsory vaccination for adults and their children. This attempt did not however yield much result.
The journey to a polio-free Nigeria as we have it today only began when the independent government took a different approach by establishing primary health centers across the country and educating the citizens on the advantages of polio vaccination.
Considering the major protests that Nigerians have against taking the vaccine as stated above, many of them can be combated by mass education and sensitization of religious organizations to speak up and clear doubts as to the safety of the vaccines. Incentives such as days off work for those who take the vaccines will also go a long way to encourage citizens to take the vaccines.
In all honesty, this method, as was in the case of polio vaccines, may be much slower than the initially proposed mandatory vaccination, however it is much preferred as it will not only eventually lead to mass compliance, it will also reduce enmity between the Government and it's citizens by making the citizens realize that the policies are put in place to their own advantage.