Forced Vaccination in COVID-19 Pandemic: Ethically Justified Intervention or Draconian Measure?

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Dr. Muhammad Rizky Nur Karim is a medical doctor from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. He is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


The COVID-19 pandemic is still not over. However, a new hope arises with the discovery of vaccines. The vaccination program itself is not without challenges. Many people believe and choose not to be vaccinated, for various reasons. To counter this problem, there are countries that implement restrictive measures. Indonesia, for example, has a law that will give criminal sanctions such as fine or imprisonment to those rejecting vaccination in times of pandemic. This policy raised a major question: is it ethically acceptable to implement such restrictive measures?

An important perspective that should be considered is the human rights perspective. While people have the right to reject vaccination, it can be argued that the right can be overridden in respect of others’ right to life. The Siracusa Principles mentioned that the right to life is a non-derogable right. If someone rejects vaccination during a pandemic situation, it could possibly endanger the life of others, thus disturbing others’ right to life. From this perspective, forced vaccination policy might seem like a good choice to protect the people and their right to life. Thus, it is ethically acceptable to do it.

However, it does not mean that forced vaccination should be done as a first choice. In a theory proposed by Ross Upshur, there are four aspects that should be considered in deciding a public health intervention. One of the aspects to consider is “least restrictive or coercive means.” It is undoubtable that giving criminal sanction is a coercive measure. Criminal sanctions will force deterrence, but it does not guarantee the public’s trust in the public health system, including the vaccination. To make people trust the vaccination, methods such as proper health promotion and educating the public is a better first choice.

The implementation of forced vaccination, whatever the disease is, might seem like a drastic measure for some people. Of course, level of restriction is not the only aspect to consider in deciding a public health intervention. But one thing we can agree on is that the implementation of forced vaccination reflects the failure of other public health measures. As long as other less restrictive measures can be done, there is no need to implement forced vaccination. Right now, we should focus on promoting the benefits of vaccination and educating the public. As it stands, forced vaccination is the last resort in this pandemic. While it is an ethically justified intervention, it is also a draconian measure.

References:

UNESCO. (2005). Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. Retrieved from: https://en.unesco.org/themes/ethics-science-and-technology/bioethics-and-human-rights

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/   

American Association for the International Commission of Jurists. (1985). Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.icj.org/siracusa-principles-on-the-limitation-and-derogation-provisions-in-the-international-covenant-on-civil-and-political-rights/

Upshur, R. E. (2002). Principles for the justification of public health intervention. Canadian journal of public health, 93(2), 101-103.

About the author

Dr. Muhammad Rizky Nur Karim is a medical doctor from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. Dr. Karim is the former IFMSA’s Capacity Building Regional Assistant for Asia-Pacific for term 2017-2018. Right now, dr. Karim is pursuing a master’s degree in Health and Medical Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Karim is also working as a health law researcher at the Center of Health Law and Policy Indonesia.

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