Why vaccine mandates are essential

News: Recently, the Supreme Court has given its verdict on the government’s ongoing vaccination policy. The court held that restrictions imposed by States and Union Territories on unvaccinated individuals cannot be said to be proportionate.

Background

The governments have imposed partial or full vaccination of individuals as a precondition for accessing public spaces, services, or using public transportation, among others.

Past trends of safeguard community interest

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, upheld the punishment of citizens who rejected smallpox vaccinations. Such a stand was taken in various judgments in the western world.

In India, the Supreme Court in Asha Ranjan v. State of Bihar (2017), echoed the prioritization of community interest over individual interests. The court had observed that the community interest cannot be sacrificed at the altar of individual interests especially in a situation where a fear of psychosis is running through the community.

The Supreme Court’s observations in this case

The government’s policy seeks to invade an individual’s bodily integrity and personal autonomy under Article 21 of the Constitution.

What is the basis of the Supreme Court’s observations?

In General

The proportionality test was used to check on the infringement of bodily integrity, personal autonomy, and privacy of an individual by the state. The test requires satisfaction of the following conditions:

(1) the state action should be sanctioned by law;

(2) the proposed action should have a legitimate state aim; and

(3) the extent of interference by the proposed state action should be proportionate to the need for such interference. It means less restrictive measures are absent.

In particularly this case

(1) The State is empowered under Entry 6 of the State List of Schedule VII of the Constitution, the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 to take effective measures (including legislate) on issues concerning ‘public health’.

(2) The state’s aim is legitimate. For example, the Indian Council of Medical Research said that 92% of COVID-19 deaths in India in 2021 occurred in unvaccinated individuals.

(3) The extent of state’s interference with the privacy and bodily autonomy of an individual, like the vaccination is the essential precondition for availing certain services, is not disproportionate when the state faces the challenge of preventing the transmission of COVID-19 and the number of deaths. However, such a state’s interference is disproportionate until the time infection rates remain low.

At present, the infection rates are low. Therefore, the court held that the state’s interreference are violative of an individual’s bodily integrity and personal autonomy under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Argument against the Supreme Court’s decision

The decision will impact India’s ability to equip itself and its citizens for further mutations of the virus, if any, in the times to come.

The vaccines have proved to be medically essential to prevent severe illness and reduce deaths among infected persons. Should the virus mutate further, the presence of a class of unvaccinated persons would have wide-ranging ramifications for an already overburdened healthcare system.

India is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Thus, India is bound to take all possible measures to progressively realise the enjoyment of “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” of its citizens under Article 12. Therefore, the state should expedite inoculations at a time when infection rates are relatively low.

The vaccination will alleviate the burden on the healthcare system during more difficult times. It will also ensure that the state’s healthcare policies are proactive and not merely reactionary.

The state should first safeguard the life and health of its citizens before individuals’ decisional autonomies.

Source: The post is based on an article “Why vaccine mandates are essential” published in the “The Hindu” on 24th May 2022.

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