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Mandatory vaccination?

Not enough supply of vaccines now, and not enough people willing to get vaccinated when we finally get enough supply. These are the current and future problems that distress our country.

Only 1.4 percent of our 110 million population has received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines as of April 29, as reported by The New York Times. That’s equivalent to 1.7 out of every 100 Filipinos. Our low vaccination rate is due mainly to the severe shortage of vaccine supplies worldwide as of the moment.

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Our public officials nevertheless announced that our country has procured and expects to receive 140 million vaccine doses this year. They’re confident we will hit the target of getting 70 million Filipinos obtain two-dose full vaccination before yearend. The target number of vaccinations, roughly 60 percent of our population, is reportedly the minimum threshold to achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity happens when a certain percentage of a population becomes immune from the virus, either because of vaccination or previous infection, thereby limiting the capacity of the virus to spread until it dies out.

But even if we grant the government’s assumption that it can secure 140 million doses this year, it appears that we won’t have 70 million of our countrymen willing to be vaccinated. In a Pulse Asia survey released last March 26, a very disturbing 61 percent of Filipinos said “no” to getting inoculated; that’s equivalent to a majority of 70 million of our population who are vaccine nonbelievers.

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This has prompted a congressman to file a bill (House Bill No. 9252) which aims to empower the government to implement mandatory vaccination. If passed, those who refuse vaccination without a valid excuse will be penalized with P50,000 fine, or one-year imprisonment, or both.

There will be no shortage of lawyers and plaintiffs who will go to court to seek the annulment of any mandatory vaccination program. The grounds that will be invoked will range from breach of religious freedom to the medical unreliability of current vaccines and violation of constitutional liberties.

The United States was confronted with the same predicament in 1905 when a mandatory vaccination program on smallpox was questioned before its Supreme Court (Jacobson v. Massachusetts). A fine of $5 was imposed on those who unreasonably refused to get vaccinated. The complainant argued that the compulsory vaccination law was oppressive and hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health as he/she deemed best. The US Supreme Court upheld the law’s validity, declaring that the constitutional liberty of every person does not mean an absolute right to be wholly freed from restraint, and that it is within the government’s police power to issue reasonable regulations that will protect public health and public safety.

To its credit, the Duterte administration has ruled out imposing mandatory vaccination at this time. But who knows, given its penchant for wielding an iron fist, it may get tempted to resort to mandatory vaccination when it obtains the supply capacity to do so, and when it feels exasperated at ineffective efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

The government should remember that people who refuse vaccination are impelled by either genuine fear or disabling lack of knowledge. They’re not motivated by intentional defiance, which is the assumption behind the penalties of fine or imprisonment. They should be enlightened with enabling information, induced with incentives, and nudged with disincentives. There are models in this regard. The European Union plans to issue certificates showing a person’s vaccination status and allowing the bearer to travel across boundaries, freed from quarantine and testing requirements. Israel issues a “green pass” for vaccinated citizens, which gives them access to facilities such as hotels, gyms, or theaters.

Our country is already tormented with the reality that drug suspects and activists are getting slaughtered like animals in our midst. The last thing our nation needs is a massive apprehension of 70 million vaccine nonbelievers, forcing their inoculation even as they kick and scream like animals.

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TAGS: Flea Market of Ideas, Joel Ruiz Butuyan, mandatory COVID-19 vaccination, Rodrigo Duterte
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