Selangor Journal
People wait in line to receive AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Kuala Lumpur, on May 5, 2021. — Picture by REUTERS

Freedom to decline vaccination does not mean freedom from consequences

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 — As Malaysia inches closer towards its goal of vaccinating 80 per cent of its entire population against Covid-19, the indignant gasps of the anti-vaccine movement in the country are getting louder and angrier.

The vehicle for their anger? The courts.

Since the government has required vaccine holdouts working in the civil service to get jabbed against Covid-19 or risk disciplinary action, some anti-vaxxers are arguing it is a violation of their constitutional rights to life and liberty, that is, the freedom to make their own medical choices. A soldier, who was dismissed for insubordination in August for refusing to be vaccinated, is currently suing the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces, claiming discrimination.

But what many are failing to understand is that the freedom to choose not to be vaccinated does not mean freedom from consequences, say experts.

Social contract

Legal expert Prof Dr Haidar Dziyauddin told Bernama anti-vaxxers needed to realise they are living in a society, which requires them to act responsibly towards the community.

“They have the right to choose. And if they have chosen not to be vaccinated, they must understand that they are not living alone. They are living with others. They have to communicate, have to interact with others.

“If they choose not to be vaccinated and they argue that it’s their personal right, they have to remember others also have (their) rights as well,” he said.

Epidemiologist Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar agreed, saying only those with severe medical conditions should be exempted from the vaccine mandates.

“But if you really have no reason and you just don’t want (the vaccine), I think you have to accept being isolated and deprived of the (vaccine passport freedom) we have now,” he said.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has said that the vaccine mandates were authorised under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 1994 and the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.

However, loopholes remain.

In Part IV, Section 11 (3) of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988, there is a provision giving health authorities the right to control the spread of disease via immunisation in “an infected local area”.

As such, said Dr Haidar, it would be better if the government passed a law specifically mandating vaccines as current laws require too broad an interpretation.

He added until Malaysia passed a law mandating vaccines in specific circumstances, the government should expect more legal challenges.

He also said courts were unlikely to side with the anti-vaxxers as they tend to uphold public interest over private rights.

“Our rights are not absolute. When I say I can enjoy my personal rights to the extent that if I exercise my rights and the other person can involve his rights, at that time my personal rights will stop,” he said.

In other words, it is the “Your liberty to swing your fist ends at my nose” argument – attributed to either former US President Abraham Lincoln or former US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – to illustrate the point that one’s personal liberty should not interfere with the rights of others.

Dr Zainal likened having mandatory vaccine laws to anti-smoking laws or seatbelt laws.

“It’s nothing new. People who smoke cannot smoke in some restaurants. You cannot smoke in the office. It’s the same thing because the smoke is harmful to you and it’s harmful to people,” he said.

Achieving new normal

After months of encouraging everyone to sign up for vaccination, promising perks and a return to a somewhat normal life, the government introduced vaccine mandates for its federal employees after registrations stalled in early September. Those with severe medical conditions preventing them from getting a shot are exempted.

“We have reached the point where there are more vaccines than human arms,” Khairy told a press conference on September 19.

Almost 17,000 civil servants had not registered for the vaccine as of September 30. As of October 5, over 1.3 million adults in Malaysia have not received their shot, most of whom have not registered either.

Misinformation by anti-vaxxers is likely responsible for the hesitance. Doctors also suspect their influence in many areas in Malaysia because most of the younger people who end up in hospitals, such as Hospital Tengku Ampuan Rahimah in Klang, for moderate or severe cases are unvaccinated despite the availability of vaccines.

Public health experts agree that vaccine mandates work, based on data coming out of the United States. Big companies, such as United Airlines and Delta Airlines, have reported almost 100 per cent vaccination rates for their staff after mandating vaccines.

In Malaysia, having a fully vaccinated workforce is a popular choice, with 73 per cent of respondents who participated in a recent survey by human resource solutions agency Randstad reporting that they would feel unsafe sharing their workspace with unvaccinated colleagues.

Dr Zainal, who is also president of the Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association, said mandates were a good way to defeat anti-vaccination propaganda, which is drowning out the facts on the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

“We are really tired of doing this thing. Every day we see (misinformation), every day we have to correct people,” he said, adding that they would nevertheless continue to educate the public as long as it is needed.

He also hoped state governments would adopt the federal vaccine mandate, such as for auxiliary staff at the state Social Welfare Departments, saying it was important for them to be vaccinated as they were the ones who usually deal with vulnerable people registered with the department.

— Bernama

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