An elderly man in Bihar who took 12 doses of vaccine in a year and an unvaccinated Canadian folk singer who died of Covid-19 after intentionally contracting the disease for natural immunity, brings the autonomy of the human body into question, writes Kashish Sharma
Nidhi Jackson, a woman in her late twenties, recently found her way back to her home in India. Born and bred in the United States, she firmly believes in exercising her democratic rights to the fullest. Immersing herself in spiritual practices and believing in her body’s natural ability to heal, she shared her mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry and how it made her sceptical about the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I decided to not get vaccinated because I believe there are natural ways of developing immunity with the right amount of exercise and consuming natural healing herbs,” she said.
Are we informed?
Nidhi believes that Covid-19 came like a storm and there was hardly any time to make sense of it. All the information available about the virus, she says, is scattered and incomplete. There is no conformity to protocols. Some wear N-95, while some are simply putting up cloth masks to match the outfits, she says. There is no common tune and everybody is singing their song.
Besides her mistrust towards the pharmaceutical industry which, she believes, sees financial opportunity in the entire situation, she said that aggressive treatments had stretched people’s bodies over a threshold and made them suffer for months. Nidhi says that her grandfather, Michael Jackson, in his young days had cured his cancer through natural self-healing practices and by voluntarily defying medical aid.
Understanding the grey-space between individual rights and community rights over vaccination, she believes in well-informed consent.
Mandatory vaccination programmes across borders have raised questions around individual rights to refuse treatment and having well-informed consent. With the recent anti-vax protests in some countries, the question of the autonomy of the human body has become all the more relevant.
As per an article, Mandatory vaccination: legal, justified, effective?, published in 2021 by the International Bar Association (an association of international legal practitioners and law societies) the fear around vaccination comes from obscure areas in scientific and medical research, where insufficient information is available about the long term effects of the vaccine. This, the report says, becomes a hindrance in decision making.
The article also shows that providing full disclosure of all the risks associated with the vaccine can also cause resistance to it. The article suggests that vaccine acceptance is also dependent on the degree of political mistrust among people.
Zain Ansari (name changed), a 24-year-old young man in Bengaluru, shared his story of how living without a vaccination certificate through three consecutive waves of the pandemic made him feel like a social outcast. He was debarred from all public venues like malls, restaurants and theatres.
“At last I decided to take the vaccine last December. It was against my will but I had to take it to access certain places. My family however stands firmly on not taking the vaccine.”
Zain’s fear of the vaccine comes from videos that claimed that the vaccine could cause infertility. He felt unsure of its ingredients and on which animals it was being tested.
An article published by the ICL Journal (Vienna Journal on International Constitutional Law) on mandatory vaccination in the backdrop of the European Court of Human Rights (2021) observed that countries often opt for indirect enforcement of vaccination like linking one’s vaccination status to social functions like work and travel. The social consequences of not being vaccinated cannot be dissociated from an individual choice.
Some vaccines may contain ingredients like porcine gelatin which might go against the religious beliefs of some religious communities and may interfere with their right to practice the religion of their choice.
Bhagyashree, a resident of Devagere village in Bengaluru shared how initially she and her small group of other elderly women were told about the dangerous side-effects of the vaccine by their community head. However, later, they were forced against their will to take the vaccine.
What about the community?
When the disease is transmissible, the risk goes beyond a single individual and it comes well under the state’s realm of protecting the community.
Dr Vandana Kalra, an ICU Head in Rainbow Hospital in Agra says that vaccination is the best way to fight the pandemic.
“There is no absolute freedom. Your freedom ends where the freedom of others begins. Mandatory vaccination is never about an individual, it is always about saving a community. We are interdependent beings, it is our democratic responsibility that no one gets infected because of us,” said she.
Dr Vandana says that for those who seek it, there is no dearth of information in the public sphere. One may not understand all the medical intricacies but can always fall back on experts who are ready to provide clarity.
Dr Vandana says that an unvaccinated body is a playground for the virus and a breeding ground for avoidable mutations. For her, prevention is always better than cure.
According to experts, countries aim at establishing herd immunity against a certain pathogen. There are high-risk groups that are purposefully left out and cannot be immunised due to underlying health conditions. Mandatory vaccination is the only way out.
The controversy around the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia and his firm stand on vaccination has raised many questions about bodily rights. Djokovic defended his position on ethical grounds. The Guardian, meanwhile, reported in January 2022 that the sports star had bought an 80 per cent stake in a Danish biotech firm QuantBio Res that is developing a treatment for Covid-19 that does not involve vaccination.
No person is an island
Advocate Sujan Singh, who practices in the Allahabad High Court, points out that the Constitution provides us with the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, but the State also has the right to exercise measures that protect community health.
“Infectious diseases are not an individual concern but they affect an entire population. The government will never force vaccines upon an individual physically. One is entitled to bodily privacy in all ways, but it can exercise control over social rights that apply to all. One can choose not to take the vaccine but there would be social limitations one has to comply with,” he says.
Justice Ravindra Yadav, a retired judge affiliated with the Allahabad High Court said that it is the state’s fundamental duty to protect people. “If you are exercising your freedom beyond a limit that interferes with the freedom and rights of another person, then you are committing a punishable offence. You can choose not to get vaccinated but infecting another person is not a choice. The state is also right in exercising measures to prevent the spread of the virus which is its fundamental duty.”