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The Voluntary Nature of COVID Vaccination and the Unreasonableness of Barring Workers from Workplace

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

From 15 January 2022, vaccination differentiation safe entry measures (“VDS”) will be further amended such that unvaccinated workers are not allowed to return to the workplace even with a negative pre-event test. Effectively, workers who are unable to work remotely exclusively (or to pivot to do so), will lose their livelihood.

This article argues that Covid vaccination is and must remain a voluntary decision, and that therefore, it is wholly unreasonable to bar workers from their workplaces. Indeed, one may even forcefully argue that it is unconstitutional to do so.

Important Note: I am a pro-vaccination, fully vaccinated, concerned citizen of Singapore. Everyone, especially those who are older and vulnerable, should seriously consider the option of getting vaccinated to protect themselves from serious Covid or death. Nothing in this article shall be construed as encouraging anyone to remain unvaccinated or to downplay the seriousness of Covid for those who are more vulnerable to it. Nevertheless, it is of utmost importance that any decision to vaccinate must be made voluntarily, free from any duress or coercion.

A. The Voluntary Nature of COVID Vaccination

Vaccination is a voluntary choice, as the policy makers affirmed right from the start. Where there is risk, there must be choice.

While risks are low, no one has guaranteed or is willing or able to guarantee that there are no risks. One cannot know the unknown (in particular, as it stands, long-term risks, given that insufficient time has elapsed).

In addition, with regards to serious adverse reactions or deaths occurring reasonably soon after vaccination, the absence of evidence (of a causal link today) is not evidence of absence. In this area of emerging science, we cannot rule out that scientific methods may improve over time to detect in the future what remains undetectable today. For the avoidance of doubt, the official position by the HSA is that thus far, no deaths have been attributed to the COVID-19 vaccines.

There is room for an individual to give weight to the above matters in one’s risk-benefit analysis (I will elaborate on this in a separate article titled “The Decision to Vaccinate: The Risk-Benefit Analysis Re-Analysed”). As such, vaccination must remain voluntary.

B. The 4 Common Grounds to Justify VDS Critically Examined

The freedom of movement is a fundamental liberty guaranteed by the Singapore Constitution (Article 13(2)). It can be legitimately restricted for public health reasons, but any such restriction through VDS must be reasonable. The move to prevent unvaccinated workers from returning to the workplace even with a negative PET is wholly unreasonable (and the following points below will apply with equal force to VDS against the unvaccinated generally).

First, to protect the unvaccinated. It is wholly unreasonable to forcefully protect someone (especially those at low risk of serious Covid or death) against their own will by removing their constitutional right to move around freely, and by extension, to remove or restrict their access to the goods, services, events, activities and opportunities found at such places. This contradicts the nature of voluntary choices. There are also serious mental health issues arising from VDS, especially for young people or children and the elderly – and soon, workers who will lose their livelihood.

It is a form of sanctimonious humbug to effectively say to such workers: “I care for you so much that I support the recent move which would result in you losing your right to work, and to leave you and/or your family with no income. I wish you a very happy new year ahead as you deal, alone and without any support, with the anxieties, fears and depression arising from being forcefully left jobless”.

Second, to protect others. But the vaccinated are already protected by being vaccinated. Insofar as vaccination protection wanes over time, the vaccinated may further protect themselves by getting boosters. One may then say, to protect the unvaccinated not by choice. However, there must be proportionality in how we protect this group, which appears to be a small number, not all are at high risk, and who may get Covid from vaccinated breakthrough cases in any event.

Third, it is right to protect the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. However, VDS must stop once the healthcare system is no longer under strain (and “strained” or “overwhelmed” must be defined in an objective, transparent and fair way). In any event, VDS should also be immediately recalibrated to exclude those who are at low risk of contributing to the hospital strain (e.g. the young and/or healthy).

Fourth, to compel or punish the unvaccinated. Voluntary choices cannot be compelled, or punished for failure to comply. Only criminal acts can be, because there is a clear line on what is right and wrong, as defined by the law. Using VDS to compel or punish puts the cart before the horse – it pre-emptively and somewhat surreptitiously categorizes the voluntary decision not to vaccinate as wrong, and thus deserving of compulsion or punishment. But this requires national and Parliamentary debate, as well as constitutional scrutiny – which we have yet to have on this critical issue.

C. Why Care, and What Next?

From Persuasion to Coercion, and a Deeper Search for a Vision of What it Means to be Truly Human

So, why should the majority vaccinated care about this issue? In reality, Covid vaccination and VDS bring out larger and long-term underlying issues with the future of Singapore.

A society that moves from persuasion to coercion to compel or punish what it affirms as a voluntary decision stands on shaky grounds. To uncritically accept this sets a worrying precedent for voluntary decisions in the future to be met with the indefinite restriction of fundamental liberties in order to compel a uniform choice. The majority today could end up being in the minority for future voluntary decisions.

In addition, underlying the debate on vaccines and VDS is a deeper question – what does it mean to be truly human? Man is a social being, in the communitarian, emotional, inter-personal and recreational senses. Man also needs purpose, and we find this in our jobs, in our studies, in physical and spiritual activities and pursuits, in our service of and providing for others, amongst others. VDS makes vaccination status a pre-requisite to participate in society and to gain access to what Man needs to remain truly human.

What Next?

I would gently encourage the vaccinated majority to begin conversing with the unvaccinated, to understand the nuances of the debate, to arrive at a more balanced view of such issues, and to boldly speak up for workers and against the unreasonable form of VDS we see today.

Employers should stand up and speak up for their unvaccinated workers too – as employers from other countries have done.

All these can be done contemporaneously with encouraging, without any duress or coercion, especially older and vulnerable employees to get vaccinated - for the right reasons, namely, for protective reasons, and not because they face losing their livelihood. Their decision, whether to vaccinate or not, must be respected, not only by words, but also with action.

Dominic Chan

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