The UCT Council is deliberating the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for 2022. Contrary to the claims of those opposing a positive decision, a mandate does not impose on our constitutional rights. In fact, it is the only way to return to regular student life safely.
By Julia Rowley (Managing Editor)
At the end of September, the UCT Senate voted on a vaccine mandate proposal for all staff and students in 2022 – with an overwhelming 83% supporting the decision. This final decision now lies with the UCT Council. However, in the meantime, the proposal has garnered serious criticism from some members of the community. Apocalyptic claims of our rights to bodily autonomy being eroded are plentiful – and false. What many do not realise is that our rights are not absolute, nor are they devoid of responsibilities.
The Constitution outlines the sanctity of our rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, religious freedom and discrimination. These rights are, of course, incredibly important to living a dignified life in a democratic state. However, the Constitution also asserts that these rights are in balance with each other – your right to bodily autonomy does not trump my right to safety and security, just because you have been afforded that right. The vaccine is safe, effective and prevents death. It also prevents Covid from being spread as easily. This is irreputable; anyone who believes otherwise and attempts to enter this debate does not have any solid ground to stand on. Your decision to be vaccinated makes your life, as well as the lives around you, safer. Your right to bodily integrity does not, and should not, come before the community’s right to security and safety.
Additionally, Section 36 allows for these rights to be limited as long as it is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.” At the time of publication, over 88 000 South Africans have died because of Covid-19. We all know someone who has passed away, or has faced serious side effects, from contracting the virus. In the Western Cape alone, 98.3% of Covid-19 deaths in September of people over the age of 60 were unvaccinated. It is clear that vaccination is vital in saving lives, alleviating the burdens on the healthcare system, and keeping the economy afloat. In this context, it is “reasonable and justifiable” for the university to limit our rights to bodily autonomy by implementing a vaccine mandate. A mandate such as this is done so in the interest of the public good, and this is why it is constitutionally sound. UCT’s approval would promote “dignity, equality and freedom” – the dignity to return to work without the fear of contracting a life-threatening virus, the equality to internet access, study spaces and facilities that are conducive to studying, and the freedom to finally live a normal student life again.
This constitutionally-valid mandate is the only safe way for the UCT community to return to normal life. Think of the many shared surfaces that we touch – whether they be in the bathroom, cafeteria or lecture hall. Think of those, too, who have to clean these surfaces after we’ve touched them. Many of these individuals use public transport to get to and from work, rely on overcrowded and underfunded government healthcare facilities, and live in spaces where social distancing may be difficult. Additionally, many of those in our community are at risk in some way or another, whether it is due to age or underlying health issues. This makes for a particularly dangerous situation: as students, most of us enjoy socialising, partying, and meeting new people. Vaccination will thus allow us to live a more normal student life, and return to campus, while still protecting ourselves and those around us.
A vaccine mandate will protect all the members in our community in a way that masks, social distancing and sanitizer is not able to. Our Constitution is founded on ideals that recognise and protect the dignity of those around us – a vaccine mandate is in line with these ideals. I eagerly await the Council’s decision, and I hope it is the right one. I need a vaccine mandate. UCT needs a vaccine mandate. We need a vaccine mandate.