Tread carefully on Covid-19 passports: analysts

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Limpho Sello

 

THE government remains worried about the slower than desired uptake of the Covid-19 vaccines. This is despite that Lesotho has surpassed the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s target for countries to have jabbed at least 10 percent of their people against Covid-19 by the end of September 2021.

WHO statistics show that by 15 September 2021, Lesotho had vaccinated 332 950 people, a figure which translates to about 15 percent of the country’s 2, 1 million population.

The country has since jabbed another 40 000 people to bring the total of the vaccinated to 18 percent of the population.

All this is cold comfort for Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro who has indicated that the total of 372 950 people vaccinated to date is nowhere near good enough for a country which has thus far procured 682 400 vaccines since the mass vaccination programme got underway in March this year.

This means that slightly above half of those who could have been jabbed have bothered to get vaccinated. Various factors particularly misinformation campaigns discouraging people from getting jabbed, have been blamed for the reluctance by many people to vaccinate.

Not content by having comfortably surpassed the 10 percent milestone set by WHO for September, the government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to get more people vaccinated to ensure herd immunity in the population by year end. Some of the measures include taking the vaccines to the streets and churches to ensure vendors, taxi drivers and the general public are jabbed at their own convenient places.

The government is also considering introducing Covid-19 passports under which its various departments as well as private organisations will only provide services to people who have been fully vaccinated.

Covid-19 passports are digital or paper documents that show that a person has been vaccinated against the virus. They could help the holders to get into other countries and places where proof that one has been vaccinated is required.

Announcing the plans in a televised address to the nation a fortnight ago, Dr Majoro said the passports would help protect the nation against the deadly pandemic which had by yesterday infected a cumulative total of 21 250 people and caused 632 deaths.

“This will be done to ensure that we can remove restrictions to allow the smooth running of some businesses because there will be an assurance that all the people in that particular business have been vaccinated,” Dr Majoro said.

“But this is an issue that is still to be polished, so we will come back at a later stage to map the way forward,” he added.

However, as pointed out by analysts, the government would have to tread very carefully on the issue which has already caused a lot of controversy around the world.

Without wide consultation to ensure broad consensus and buy-in from the nation, the passports will face resistance, the analysts warned. They could even raise arguments of unconstitutional discrimination against those who refuse to be vaccinated. Some analysts argue that the freedoms of association and movement, which would be constricted by any requirement of Covid passports, are inalienable constitutional rights that must protected at all costs.

But another school of thought is that those who are vaccinated also have their constitutional rights to life and to be protected which should not be endangered by those who refuse to be vaccinated.

Commenting on the planned introduction of the passports, a lawyer who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said, “this will lead to discrimination against those who exercise their right to refuse to be vaccinated.

“This will impact negatively on people’s freedom of movement and their right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated. People who are not vaccinated will be denied access to services offered by various government departments. We have already seen the controversy around the issue. Democratic countries like the United Kingdom have shelved the passports for the time being to allow for more consultations.

“We accept that Covid-19 is a scourge which demands desperate measures including the suspension of some civil liberties. But it will be important for the government to first of consult widely to achieve consensus as the issue involves the rights and freedoms of citizens. If the passports are arbitrarily imposed, Lesotho will have joined the ranks of authoritarian regimes which eschew consultation and simply shove polices and laws down the throats of their citizens,” the lawyer said.

The lawyer could well be right given that the introduction of Covid-19 passports has become a thorny issue around the world with lawyers, politicians, human rights activists and even ordinary people slamming them as a violation of freedoms of movement and of choice.

Fellow SADC country, Zimbabwe, whose leaders are known for their autocratic and dictatorial tendencies since independence from Britain in 1980, has torched a storm after its Justice minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, recently called on civil servants who do not want to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to resign.

Mr Ziyambi said while Zimbabweans would not be forced to get vaccinated, those in the public service had a responsibility to protect the public by getting jabbed.

He hinted at punitive measures against government employees who refused the vaccine.

“We are not forcing you to be vaccinated but if you are a government employee, for the protection of others and the people that you are serving, get vaccinated.

“There will come a time when we will not want any teacher who is not vaccinated to stand in front of pupils.

“If you want to enjoy your rights, which are in the constitution, you can resign (and go to enjoy your rights without endangering the lives of others),” Mr Ziyambi said in an interview with a local radio station two weeks ago.

A fortnight ago, the British government bowed down to criticism and cancelled plans to introduce vaccine passports for access into nightclubs and large events in England.

Under the scheme, people would have been required to show proof of being fully vaccinated, a negative Covid-19 test or of having completed self-isolation after a positive PCR test in order to gain entry to clubs and other crowded events.

Speaking to the BBC on the shelving of the Covid-19 passports plan, Sajid Javid, the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said “we shouldn’t be doing things for the sake of it”.

This represented a major climbdown from Vaccines Minister, Nadhim Zahawi’s earlier stance that the passports scheme was the “best way” to keep the nightclubs open. Mr Zahawi had said the end of September 2021 was the right time to start the vaccine passport scheme for sites with large crowds because all over-18s would have been offered two jabs by then.

However, the plan came under criticism from nightclub owners and some legislators.

The Night Time Industries Association had said the plans could have crippled the industry and led to nightclubs facing discrimination cases.

Some MPs described the plans as “divisive, unworkable and expensive”.

This is indeed a delicate issue which may involve the curtailing of certain freedoms, the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) Public Service and Accountability Programmes Manager, Rapelang Mosae, notes.

He however, believes that Lesotho can avoid similar controversy and having to cancel the passports by engaging in broad-based consultations before their introduction.

“Before introducing the passports, the government would have to provide a clear policy framework to enable us to dissect it and assess its human rights implications because after all the government is duty bound to balance between individual and collective human rights,” Mr Mosae said.

“Without adequate input from stakeholders, the introduction of the passports will be viewed as a violation of a range of rights such as freedom from discrimination which is provided for by the constitution of Lesotho. Moreover, this will violate an array of socio-economic rights provided for in the constitution such as the rights to education and health.”

Mr Mosae however, conceded that Covid-19 is a deadly disease requiring strong measures to protect the nation. He said vaccinating had proved a strong weapon in saving lives and as such as many people as possible had to be jabbed to enable various socio-economic activities to resume.

He said there was nothing new about governments curtailing certain individual rights and freedoms in emergency situations in the interests of public health. For example, some East African countries like Tanzania and Ethiopia will not allow entry if one does not have proof of vaccination against yellow fever, he said.

He said people who visit these countries unquestionably submit to the rules and the masses could do the same with the Covid-19 passports as long as there has been adequate consultation and information to educate them on the need to be jabbed.

“One of the Covid-19 vaccines’ benefits is that one has a lesser risk of contracting the virus. Hence the passports are necessary to lower the risk of contracting and dying from the virus.

“We believe the vaccine is a positive and necessary weapon in the fight against Covid-19. People must be consulted and educated to understand that requirement of proof of vaccination is nothing new. Some countries require proof of immunization against yellow fever and this has been happening for decades and we must comply because it is meant to protect us and fellow human beings,” Mr Mosae.

National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) deputy CEO, Thabo Ntoi, defended the plans to introduce the Covid-19 passports, saying this was being done in line with the government’s responsibility to protect the public from the deadly virus.

He said while citizens had rights, the constitution was clear that such rights are not absolute and could be curtailed in situations where the nation had to be protected from disasters, wars or pandemics.

He cited several constitutional provisions which limit rights in the interests of public health.

Titled “Protection of health”, clause in section 27 of the constitution states that “Lesotho shall adopt policies aimed at ensuring the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for its citizens, including policies designed to — (a) provide for the reduction of stillbirth rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child; (b) improve environmental and industrial hygiene; (c) provide for the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; (d) create conditions which would assure to all, medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness; and (e) improve public health”.

Mr Ntoi said, “while we live in a democratic country, the government is bound to introduce some restrictions or limit some rights to ensure that the greater number of the country’s population is protected.

“Vaccines are not deadly and people need to understand that the government of Lesotho will not introduce a vaccine to kill its people.

“When the majority of our population has been vaccinated, we will be able to revive the economy and some of the companies that closed down due to the impact of Covid-19 will be revived. The responsibility of the government is to protect its nation from any kind of danger and if it means limiting some of the rights to do so then so be it,” Mr Ntoi said.

Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (LCN) Executive Director, Seabata Motsamai, said while it was important for people to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the introduction of the passports was problematic as it would deny unvaccinated people access to crucial government services.

“As Ntate Majoro and his cabinet are contemplating the introduction of vaccine passports they should move away from extreme measures which will inhibit our rights to services.

“We know that some rights such as the freedom of association have already been limited hence gatherings were restricted to avoid the spread of Covid-19. But to introduce passports as a prerequisite for accessing public services is not the right way to go about it,” Mr Motsamai said.

He said instead of introducing the passports, the government should rather allow private businesses like night clubs to restrict access to their premises as these were not essential services like health, education and documentation services offered by government departments.

Introducing the passports and consequently preventing the unvaccinated from accessing crucial public services would be wrong, he said.

Dr Majoro’s press attaché, Buta Moseme, weighed in, saying the government had not made a binding decision on the issue. He said at this stage the government was only bringing up the issue for public debate.

“The government is only asking the nation to think about this issue. It is the nation and not the government that will eventually decide whether the Covid-19 passports should be introduced,” Mr Moseme said.

While the Covid-19 passports may be necessary in the greater public interest, it is clear that the government will have to tread very carefully on the issue.

As the analysts point out, wider consultations with the stakeholders and public will be needed before the passports are introduced, if at all.

This article was possible due to the support of the German federal foreign office and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA) Zivik funding programme. The views presented in this article do not represent the views of the German federal foreign office nor the IFA.

 

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