WHAT DO PUDUCHERRY and New York have in common? The idea of compulsory vaccination, though in varying degrees. On December 4th, the director (health) of the Union Territory issued an order stating that everyone there would need to be vaccinated or face penal action. New York, a few days later, came out with a policy that all private sector employees would need to be vaccinated. That is more in line with what other Indian states have done. Karnataka, for example, doesn’t allow people in malls without vaccination. Recently, the state said parents who didn’t have vaccination couldn’t send their children to schools that had reopened. Maharashtra, too, has a number of restrictions if you are not vaccinated. All public transport would only be available to the vaccinated. In early November, one of its districts, Aurangabad, decided that anyone who didn’t even have one dose would not get ration shop goods, gas cylinders or fuel from petrol pumps. Puducherry, however, has become the first in imposing a blanket order.
But then there is also this. Last month, in response to a petition in the Supreme Court against such mandates, the Centre said that vaccines are not compulsory. A Hindustan Times article said: “The affidavit filed by Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) joint drugs controller PBN Prasad also revealed the government’s stand on vaccine mandate. It said, “As per the operational guidelines document, Covid-19 vaccination is voluntary. However, it is emphasized and encouraged that all individuals take vaccination for public health and in his/her interest as well as public interest since in case of a pandemic, an individual’s ill health has a direct effect on the society.”” Preventing people from getting fuel or gas cylinders, everyone will agree, doesn’t really fit into emphasis or encouragement.
It sums up the issue of vaccine mandates across the world. The problem is partly from the nature of Covid. If a new virus killed smallpox or the bubonic plague, there would be no vaccine hesitancy and every government would make vaccines compulsory without a second thought. But Covid falls in that in-between zone where it is neither as benign as the flu, nor is it of any consequence to the overwhelming majority even if they get infected. On paper, therefore, it is not made compulsory but through side-manoeuvres, like denying access to government services and public spaces, people are coerced into getting it. This, even if vaccines are necessary and safe, is a dishonest way of doing it. There must either be transparent laws for compulsory vaccination or it must be left to an individual and his social conscience.
Normally, such a duplicitous strategy wouldn’t stand the test of courts. By what law can anyone be denied a gas cylinder when the Government itself says vaccination is not compulsory? The judiciary is, however, reluctant to be seen going against the larger public good in the middle of a pandemic, and so it is hard to see them give any order against vaccination. The future is going to be more of these local vaccine mandates pushing the unvaccinated to become outcasts.