Johannesburg – The discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has pushed debate over mandatory vaccinations to the top of South Africa’s agenda, as rising infections bring the once-unthinkable option into play.
For months the country has tried carrots to lure people to get jabs, from discounts at stores to cash prizes and free Uber rides.
And still only one in four South Africans are vaccinated.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday hinted at bringing out the stick, raising the possibility of mandatory vaccinations – a step once seen as politically impossible, rejected by unions and opposition parties.
Omicron has changed those calculations, prompting two million-strong Cosatu – the country’s largest labour group – to break ranks with other unions and back mandatory jabs.
“Our position has evolved,” the union said.
Omicron is driving a new wave of infections, and stoking new fears as scientists determine exactly how dangerous the variant is.
Although other countries quickly blocked travel from South Africa, Ramaphosa didn’t announce another lockdown at home.
Instead, he said the government was looking at “measures that make vaccination a condition for access to workplaces, public events, public transport and public establishments”.
Less than a year earlier, he’d said no one would be forced to get a vaccine.
Now lawyers and academics are tussling in public over how to balance public health with personal freedoms.
South Africa’s constitution, designed to mend the wounds of apartheid, takes an egalitarian approach, even though the country still grapples with a huge gap between rich and poor.
Some universities and employers have already imposed their own mandates.
Major opposition parties oppose a national vaccine mandate, though they have softened their tone as data brings stark economic realities increasingly into focus.
Two days after Ramaphosa’s speech, the country reported record unemployment at 34.9%, with job losses in every segment of the economy.
While activity is slowly growing, it has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels – meaning that even without consensus on vaccine mandates, there is broad agreement that South Africa can’t afford another lockdown.
Lockdown measures – including bans on alcohol and tobacco and limits on religious gatherings – already faced legal challenges. Some unions have threatened to take any vaccine requirement to the nation’s highest court.
During last month’s local elections, the touchy subject was hardly mentioned, though vaccine clinics were set up at some polling stations.
“Nobody has a right that extends into somebody else’s right,” said Cathleen Powell, a law professor at the University of Cape Town.
Refusing a vaccine could be considered a threat to infect others, she said. That would go against South Africa’s concept of “ubuntu”, meaning “I am because you are.” The idea embodies the community spirit cherished by Nelson Mandela.
Official numbers show Covid has hit South Africa harder than the rest of the continent, with nearly three million cases and 90 000 deaths.
But after leading global rallying cries of “vaccine apartheid” as rich nations hoarded doses, South Africa is now delaying its next deliveries, because it can’t find enough takers for the shots already in stock.
Some of the hesitancy is racial. Several studies show that white men are more reluctant to get jabbed. Others believe that traditional medicines from “sangomas” can combat coronavirus.
“It’s a reflection of the declining trust people have in our government,” political analyst Ralph Mathekga told AFP. “It’s also about credibility of policymakers.”
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