Maverick Citizen

Covid-19 Op-ed

Debating the vaccine mandate: Critical to ensure the public are heard

Although public consultations on mandatory vaccinations are undoubtedly taking place, they are not necessarily broadly representative of the South African public.(Photo: Facebook)

Although public consultations on mandatory vaccinations are undoubtedly taking place, they are not necessarily broadly representative of the South African public. Unions, religious organisations, and corporate interests, to some extent, represent citizens but they do not represent us all and they do so with their own vested interests in play.

President Ramaphosa has called for public discussion on mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations and has set up a task team to ‘undertake broad consultations’ on the issue. Ramaphosa has ‘left the question open’ with the aim of inviting a discussion in the country. 

What are we to make of this — as citizens in a democratic state?

Some have taken up the task: from attempts to clarify the distinction between compulsory and mandatory vaccines to in-depth political and constitutional analysis, the issue is being engaged with across media platforms. But is the government playing its part? Despite promises of broad consultations and speedy reports, the public is yet to hear any formal updates on the consultation process nor has there been any indication of new policy. 

While there is much to say on both the issue itself and the delays in the process, we’d like to focus on the prior, and we think foundational, question of how to think about Ramaphosa’s call for public discussion in the context of our democratic citizenship. 

In our previous articles, we emphasised that the social contract is between citizens and so as we face up to the many challenges of Covid-19 our primary question should be “what do we owe each other?”. The democratic state, we argued, is in place to help us to meet our obligations to each other; to enable us to respect each other’s rights and freedoms. It is there, among other things, to make the complex fairness decisions required in the cooperative project of the state. Where the state fails in this task, as we suggested it did during the early vaccination queue confusions, it pushes the decision-making burden back onto citizens as individuals and thus undermines the collective lens that is pivotal to a successful state project (and public health campaign). When the state fails to do its job, it becomes extremely difficult for citizens to do theirs. 

How then should we interpret Ramaphosa’s decision to call explicitly for public debate on the issue and to set up a consultation process? Is he actually providing for robust democratic consultation? Or avoiding a difficult decision of the kind we have entrusted to be made by the state? 

South Africa has been under the Disaster Management Act since mid-March 2020. Under this Act the executive branch of government is able to create law without the typical parliamentary procedures: this is what has allowed the ‘from midnight’ regulation changes in a country where it takes on average a year for legislation to journey from introduction to commencement. Many are rightly concerned about the lack of democratic consultation over such a long period of time, on an issue that is so central to our daily lives and well-being. Our view of citizenship shares this concern: a part of what we owe each other in a democratic state is political equality and freedom. The ability to participate in the creation of the rules that govern us is a central way in which we are able to respect this for each other. Democratic consultation and participation are deeply important. 

It is not clear, however, that leaving the question open for public discussion alongside closed-door ‘broad consultations’ is, in a meaningful sense, democratic consultation. How does this public discussion feed into government decision-making? While we agree that the robust engagements of South African Twitter can influence the state, this is not a formal channel of political consultation. Neither are longer form opinion pieces such as these. While such engagements are deeply important in our democracy, we should be wary of our President relying so vaguely on their fruits. They are not fully representative of citizens and given their informal status, there are no clear lines of accountability as to how or to what extent the Presidency has to take these views into account. 

No doubt, consultations are happening, but these too are not necessarily broadly representative of the South African public: while unions, religious organisations, and corporate interests do, to some extent represent citizens, they do not represent us all and they do so with their own vested interests in play. With no parliamentary debate or vote in sight, how are citizens being consulted?  To whom is the question really open? 

Time is, of course, of the essence here, but there are options available to Ramaphosa to at least gesture in this direction: to answer questions from the public, for example; or to utilise the SMS system that is used to communicate Covid measures to citizens to ask a few questions around views of mandatory vaccinations or vaccine hesitancy. If we are to interpret Ramaphosa as genuinely seeking public opinion and engaging with the democratic voice, this needs to come alongside an obligation on his part to actively create spaces for this voice, with clear, accountable channels into the decision-making process. 

That being said, we might think that not only is Ramaphosa not meaningfully engaging with citizens in his call for public discussion, but that this is not the right time to do so. As we argued in our previous piece, a part of the value of the state lies in its large-scale resources and access to information and expertise. Many of the complex decision-making done by the state is not accessible to citizens — it is too burdensome for the typical citizen, in both time and expertise. We need the state both to help us to coordinate where collective responses are required, and to guide us when issues are scientifically or otherwise complex. Is this perhaps why the President considers it his task as a leader to ‘nudge everyone in the same direction’? 

That is not to say that more decisive action precludes engagement with citizens — more meaningful consultation could include Ramaphosa and his government leading the conversation. Not just creating empty space for, or encouraging, discussion, but actively leading the conversation with clear communication on the issues at stake and the information to hand, and robust engagement with citizens. Perhaps Ramaphosa owes us more as a leader than just ‘nudging’ us toward the right direction.

So we return then to the original question: what are we to make of this? How ought we to respond as citizens? 

Our discussion of the social contract reminds us that ultimately our responsibilities are to each other and that these do not fall away when our state fails to facilitate their fulfilment as it should. It is important then that we do step up to the public discussion — perhaps not because Ramaphosa called for it, but because our response to Covid-19 is of critical importance to our collective survival and while the state is doing much to facilitate a response, the gaps are significant. 

For now then, citizens can consider two tasks: to engage with the state to do better in filling these gaps, and, to the extent that we can, work to fill these gaps ourselves (think here of companies or universities introducing their own vaccine mandate, or unions engaging with their members on their views on a mandate). Despite the haste required, we should not lose sight of important democratic issues at stake in how we reach a decision on vaccine mandates. DM/MC

Dr Christine Hobden is a senior lecturer in ethics and public governance at the Wits School of Governance and an Iso Lomso Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Dr Heidi Matisonn is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her focus is on applied philosophy with a specific interest in health and research ethics.

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