Covid-19 third wave: Fears grip Nigerians over FG’s measures




…Govt’ll apply basic law against vaccine hesitancy – NPHCDA

…Mandatory vaccination justified for infectious diseases – Lawyer

‘…Forcing people to take jab violates human rights’

‘…Public ought to be well-enlightened’

 …FG should adopt the polio approach – Expert

The federal government has disclosed that it is planning to make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for civil servants and other segments of the society. Also, the Edo and Ondo state governments recently announced compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for adults. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report examines the move amidst rising cases of Covid-19 and human rights concerns.

The federal government has disclosed plans to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for all federal civil servants.

The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, made the disclosure in Abuja recently during a meeting of the Health Commissioners Forum with federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and health partners.

The meeting was primarily to discuss ways to strengthen the health system at the sub-national levels, with an overall objective of achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC).

Compulsory vaccination

Mustapha, who doubles as the chairman of the Presidential Steering Committee on Covid-19 (PSC), said the Covid-19 vaccination will be compulsory for federal civil servants once vaccines are available for everyone.

“You should, in the course of this meeting, deliberate on the challenges caused by vaccine hesitancy all over the country. It is expected that you will come with policy alternatives as solutions. Let me state, however, that the federal government shall, very shortly, unveil its decision on mandatory vaccination for every employee in its service.”

 He said the country did not have sufficient vaccines at the moment and so will not institute the mandatory vaccination immediately.

 “One of the reasons we want to do that with the federal civil service is because they will be travelling on behalf of the nation. Assuming the American government said, you can’t come into their country unless you’re vaccinated? So, you have to be vaccinated.

 “It’s a sequential thing and we are taking one step at a time, because we realise we don’t have sufficient vaccines in the country at the moment,” he said.

NPHCDA’s moves

Similarly, the executive-director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Faisal Shuaib, said the government “is considering making the vaccines compulsory for all Nigerians.”

 Shuaib, who stated this at a briefing in Abuja, said the government “may apply the basic rule of law against such people because they will be endangering the lives of other people.”

 He said, “The Presidential Steering Committee and the Federal Ministry of Health is exploring ways of making vaccines more available to all Nigerians including federal civil servants and corporate entities. Once these vaccines are made equitably available to all Nigerians, we would need to have a frank discussion about justice, fairness and liberty that exist around vaccine hesitancy.

“If some individuals refuse to take the vaccine, hence endangering those who have or those who could not due to medical exemptions, then we have to apply the basic rule of law, which stipulates that your human right stops where mine begins. So, you have a right to refuse vaccines, but you do not have the right to endanger the health of others.”

Legality

However, this is coming as a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, the Rivers state capital, granted an order restraining the Edo state governor, Godwin Obaseki, and the state government from restricting unvaccinated persons from attending mass gatherings as from mid-September.

Governor Obaseki had last week mandated the people of the state to take the vaccine, warning that, as from September 15, anyone who has not been vaccinated will not be allowed into public places such as banks and worship centres.

 “From the second week of September, people may not be allowed to worship in churches and mosques without showing proof of their vaccination cards at the gates. Similarly, people will not be allowed to event centres, receptions or parties without showing proof of their vaccination cards,” the government had warned.

 On the other hand, one Charles Osaretin filed a suit marked FHC/PH/FHR/266/2021 to counter the governor and five others. The applicant, through his counsel, Echezona Etiaba, asked the court to order parties to maintain status quo pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice, for the enforcement of the applicant’s human rights, and for the leave of court to serve the respondents by publishing the court’s processes in a national daily newspaper.

 The judge, Stephen Dalyop Pam, granted the orders and adjourned the suit till September 10 for a hearing of the substantive motion.

Earlier on Monday last week, civil servants in Edo state Ministry of Health were given a seven-day ultimatum to get vaccinated against Covid-19 pandemic. The ultimatum was contained in a memo dated August 30, with reference number: HA.429/1/16 and issued by the permanent secretary of the ministry, Frederick Irabor.

 The memo stated that any staff member who failed to get vaccinated within the period would not be allowed into office.

“I am directed to refer to the above subject and to notify all staff (members) of the Ministry of Health to get vaccinated against the deadly Covid-19 within the week. I am further directed to inform all that from September 6, any staff (member) who has not taken the Covid-19 vaccine will not be allowed into the office premises,” the memo stated.

Historical perspective

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend, a lecturer in the department of microbiology, Kogi State University, Ayingba, Dr. Usman Attah, said there are historical precedents to the government’s attempt to make vaccination compulsory.

He said, “During the colonial period in northern Nigeria, there was vaccine hesitancy which resulted in considerably fewer smallpox vaccinations being carried out in the area. The colonial administration introduced a Vaccination Ordinance, originally enacted in 1917. In 1945, the Ordinance was amended to include a schedule for compulsory vaccination of adults and their children to be organised by local political authorities.

 “The Native Authority officials were emirs and traditional chiefs and were responsible for determining penalties for non-cooperation. They had little means of enforcing the penalties, and so not much success was recorded.

“However, after independence Nigerian governments took a different approach to national vaccination. Primary health centres were established across the country and citizens were educated and implored to vaccinate their children. Many international NGOs were involved including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as governors and politicians.

“With these, tremendous success was recorded, especially poliomyelitis. Consequently, Nigeria was declared polio-free on August 25, 2020. I recommend a similar approach for the Covid-19 vaccination and not mandatory vaccination.”

Human rights

In his reaction, the chairman, Nigerian Covid-19 Response Alliance, a coalition of over 70 civil society organisations formed to monitor the response to the pandemic in Nigeria, Tony Akinyemi, told Punch  that forcing people to take Covid-19 vaccination violates human rights.

Akinyemi, therefore, urged the government to allow individuals to make their choice on vaccination

He said, “I personally do not agree with the position of the Edo state governor and the government on compulsory vaccination. It has no basis in science, ethics, and logic. We are trying to enlighten members of the public and to educate them. People can gullibly buy into something because they are either uninformed or ill-informed or misinformed.

“But when people are well-informed, then they will make what we call informed decisions and informed choices. I believe that if the public is well-enlightened, nobody will run under a truck by themselves. What we are doing is to let the public know the true position of science on this subject.

“Mandating vaccinations for Covid-19 raises many complex and difficult legal questions, concerning the interplay of competing human rights. On the one hand, there is the issue of health and safety; on the other, personal human rights.

 “There cannot be interference with the human rights of citizens unless it is in accordance with law, and necessary for the protection of health and safety or rights and freedom of others. In the context where mandatory vaccination is being proposed without extant regulations or laws, aggrieved citizens can bring an application to enforce their fundamental rights to privacy, movement, religious beliefs and threatened violation of the right to bodily integrity.

 “They can also seek to have the order set aside by asking for an order for declaratory relief declaring the mandatory vaccination policy illegal and therefore null and void for failure to follow due process of law. Such an injunctive order would restrain the government from implementing the compulsory vaccination policy.”

Similarly, a legal practitioner Deinma Peters, told this reporter that mandatory Covid-19 vaccination in Nigeria is illegal.

He said, “At the moment, mandatory Covid-19 vaccination in Nigeria is illegal. I am not aware of any legislation or regulation that mandates Nigerians to take vaccines. Mandatory Covid-19 vaccination cannot be made by oral proclamation like what happened in these two states. It must be based on legislation or regulation based on public health and safety otherwise the actions of the state functionaries will amount to violations of citizens’ right to privacy, right to movement and right to religious life.

“I agree that making Covid-19 vaccination mandatory could be reasonably justified for contagious and serious diseases like Covid-19 because there is a real and grave threat to public health and safety. This reasoning would make such an order compliant with Section 45 of the Constitution. However, there must be a law or regulation to that effect. I am not aware of any at the moment.

“There are other issues to consider too. How many people have been vaccinated in Nigeria at the moment? It’s just over four million out of a population of over 200 million. That’s not up to 2% of our population. Have we interrogated the reasons behind this abysmally low level of vaccination? Are we sure we have enough vaccines to go round? Are we sure the majority of the people are aware of the need and importance of being vaccinated? Have we tried to educate the majority of the people? Are we dealing with deliberate refusal to get vaccinated or are we dealing with vaccine hesitancy? Or are people refusing vaccines for religious reasons?”

He added, “The government at all levels must provide scientific explanations to these posers before the announcement of a policy of compulsory vaccination. Answers to these questions should inform its response. I am aware that there are more than a few people that would like to be vaccinated, but have not been privileged to have a jab. I know of some others that for religious reasons, they prefer not to be vaccinated. “Concerns over vaccine safety still remain. Obviously, encouraging these groups to get vaccinated will require different approaches. Making vaccination compulsory is not the only way to obtain high vaccination rates. Research into how to further improve uptake rates among vaccine-hesitant citizens is more important than mandatory vaccination.

“It should be noted, however, that mandatory vaccination has been used to achieve great results in some other countries in respect of child immunisation. Singapore, Belgium, Slovenia and some countries in the Americas – 29 – have mandatory vaccinations.

 “But coercion through compulsion might not be effective in Nigeria. It may be counterproductive as it has the potential to lend credence to conspiracy theories. Why not be bothered about many dying because of cholera and insecurity? Why the overdrive in respect of Covid-19 vaccination when many more are dying as a result of malaria and insecurity of lives and property. The government should educate and provide incentives for vaccination rather than threatening and coercing citizens.” 

Defiance

However, Obaseki has insisted that the state government’s directive on no access to public places without being vaccinated still stands.

Obaseki, at a news briefing in Benin on Wednesday, also threatened to impose a lockdown if residents failed to follow the directive and comply with Covid-19 protocols in order to halt the spread of the Delta variant of the pandemic.

“The attention of the Edo government has been drawn to an order by a High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, Rivers directing the government to maintain the status quo on the purported compulsory Covid-19 vaccination for citizens.

“To the best of our knowledge, the order is, at best, speculative and preemptive as the scheduled date for the commencement of enforcement of the directive is the second week of September. We want to reiterate that our directive on vaccination stands,” Obaseki said.

He urged those planning social, religious, political or business events after the second week of September to ensure that both they and their guests were not only vaccinated but possessed vaccination cards as proof.

 According to the governor, “Anyone without this proof will not be granted access to crowded facilities.” The governor also said the government was embarking on an intensive enforcement of use of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to curb the current spike in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

 “It must be stated that there is an obvious misconception that the directive issued by the government was to make vaccination compulsory for all citizens.

 “Although the governor has the power to make such an order under the Gazetted Quarantine Regulations, this directive is actually only a denial of access to public places of persons who chose not to be vaccinated.”

He said the government’s “overriding concern is the safety and health of the citizens.”