By A/Pr Ciprian Radavoi

With the next pandemic likely not far ahead, the debate over the suitability of a broad, general vaccination mandate (‘GVM’) goes on. Proponents insist on utilitarian arguments related to the common good, while opponents rely on autonomy and individual freedom of choice.

In an article forthcoming in World Medical and Health Policy, I propose a novel argument in favour of GVM: vaccination should be mandatory because, in the fear-dominated climate of a pandemic, it becomes mandatory anyway — just not in a de jure, parliament-sanctioned form. As former Australian Prime Minister Morrison has put it, the government will make vaccination “as mandatory as you can make it”. That is, left to its own devices, executive power, from governments to the local administration and even corporations, will tend to impose on the non-vaccinated restrictions of such harshness that vaccination becomes de facto mandatory.

Public health policy is supposed to follow the so-called ‘ladder of intervention’, moving gradually from the least to the most restrictive measures in order to attain a certain objective. In pandemics, the objective is reaching herd immunity by having a high enough proportion of vaccinated. At the top of the ladder there is forcible vaccination, obviously prohibited in democratic countries. Next down the ladder are statutory mandates backed with fines, like the one imposed in Austria and a few other countries. Next down, there is a grey area where there is no official general mandate to vaccinate but, to persuade the population to do the right thing, all sort of prohibitions are imposed on the unvaccinated.

As making life difficult to the unvaccinated was at the heart of pro-vaccination policies in the COVID-19 pandemic, they were banned from pubs, churches, shops, etc. An element of reasonable choice remained for most of these: the pubgoer had the option to drink at home, the churchgoer could dispense with the priest’s service for a while and speak to the Divinity directly, the shopper could shop online or ask a friend to shop for them, and so on.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

But when the place you are banned from is the workplace, we are no longer talking about a real choice. ‘No jab, no job’ is not the same as ‘no jab, no pub’. Work is much more than the right to do a job and get a salary in return. As individuals we obtain an income allowing for a decent life (food, clothing, housing, medicines), but also dignity, self-esteem, and social recognition. A person who is denied the right to work is exposed to the risk of poverty, mental harm, and even suicide.

Given the fundamental importance of the right to work, and the longer effect of restrictions on this than on other rights in pandemics, “vaccination or joblessness” is not a reasonable choice the worker is presented with. Without choice, there is coercion. With coercion, there is a mandate. A de facto mandate, more precisely – one imposed by the executive (public or private) power in the absence of statutes stipulating general mandatory vaccination. And this creates three serious problems from a democracy and rule of law perspective:

  • First, banning the unvaccinated from the workplace was done in the COVID-19 pandemic — despite the fundamental importance of the right to work to the human being — without any genuine examination of the elements of balancing (necessity, proportionality) required whenever a right is limited by the authorities.
  • Second, numerous employers sacked the unvaccinated even in jurisdictions where this was not supported or required by public regulation. Corporate overreach, in the form of banning the unvaccinated from the workplace despite the lack of laws requiring this radical measure, is especially concerning given the increased concentration of unchecked power in private hands, in the contemporary globalised world.
  • And third, in a more general perspective, claiming that something mandatory is not mandatory is a case of legal hypocrisy. Legal hypocrisy obscures the harm inflicted on persons and communities, thus silencing the victims. It also erodes trust in the rule of law and in democratic institutions: how can the citizen believe in a system that publicly honours the fundamental liberal value of personal autonomy, while at the same time dismisses it in practice?

In the charged climate of a pandemic, overly zealous action by public and private executive power, including dismissal of the unvaccinated, seems inevitable, with the noxious effects enumerated above. It is better to fence this otherwise laudable zeal by simply making general vaccination de jure mandatory, with all the benefits deriving from this official status in terms of setting the proper balance between the rights and interests at stake. Intrusions into the right to work would be inevitable, but dismissal as a coercion tool would not be used. Indeed, in a parliamentary debate conducted without pressure before the next pandemic hits, dismissal for vaccination refusal would likely not pass the tests of necessity (since the pandemic is temporary, a temporary suspension would suffice) and proportionality (uncertain benefits in exchange for a very severe blow to a fundamental right).

Ciprian Radavoi is an Associate Professor in the School of Law and Justice at the University of Southern Queensland.

Ciprian is a lawyer and former diplomat, currently teaching and undertaking legal research in Australia (international law, tort law, sports law, human rights and social justice).