Vaccines are a critical tool in the battle against Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to protect yourself and others. But some people have doubts about a vaccine’s efficiency or won’t get the jab for personal or religious reasons. Where does this leave businesses at large?

Following the rise of a second Covid-19 wave in many countries, vaccines are in high demand. “While desperate to resume pre-pandemic operations, businesses in South Africa find themselves in a tricky position,” explains Natashia Barnabas, industrial relations manager at the staffing and recruitment firm Workforce Staffing. “Should they enforce vaccinating workers to ensure a safe work environment, as well as operational continuity?

“If so, they risk a legal battle with employees who have a constitutional right to refuse the vaccination in order to have their religious customs and beliefs respected. Should businesses choose not to enforce vaccinations, they could be putting employee wellness at risk in their attempt to avoid the legal and financial implications of compulsory vaccination programmes.” This, she points out, is where temporary-employment providers can assist organisations in creating a healthy workplace, mitigating the clash with employees.

An unprecedented predicament
Although employers have an obligation in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act to provide a safe workspace, employees have a corresponding constitutional right to security and control over their bodies.

“Our government has advised that vaccinations are not compulsory. Until this changes, each organisation must determine the role that the vaccination should play in ensuring business continuity,” notes Barnabas. “However, where it is not feasible for employees working in close proximity to adhere to Covid-19 prevention protocols, this could possibly require a mandatory vaccination policy. But there are many businesses where employees can maintain social distancing while sanitising frequently, which would mean that a mandatory vaccine is not necessarily required for operations to continue safely.”

Workplace concerns: a tough balancing act
Each organisation will need to analyse its daily operations and perform its risk assessment in each department to determine the pros and cons of enforcing such a vaccine policy. This is in line with its duty to provide a safe working environment as well as to mitigate job losses in terms of the OHS Act.

Barnabas adds that the Employment Equity (EE) Act also prevents discrimination and unfair treatment against employees on a number of listed grounds contained in section 9 of the Constitution. “This includes family responsibility and religion, while the inherent right to dignity is contained in section 10, which includes the right to be respected and protected at all times. Moreover, section 12 of the Constitution specifically states that everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right not to be subjected to medical procedures without informed consent.”

On the other hand, the EE Act provides that medical testing by the employer is justifiable in the light of medical facts, employment conditions, social policy or the inherent requirements of the job, and section 23 of the Constitution grants everyone the right to fair labour practices. “All of these rights and sections of the relevant Acts must be weighed against each other, in light of the limitation’s clause contained in section 36 of the Constitution, which states that rights may be limited by a law of general application that is ‘reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on dignity, freedom, and equality’.”

Here, the consensus from the courts in such cases is to look at the following factors, the first of which must examine the least restrictive means of achieving the desired outcome, Barnabas adds. “So, instead of enforcing a vaccine, it must be considered whether employees can practise social distancing, and if employees have sanitising stations placed at strategic points in order to adhere to Covid-19 protocols, or whether any other measures could be applied. Secondly, when considering refusal based on religious grounds, it must be determined whether such refusal is unreasonable.”

As Professor Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and former co-chair of the government’s coronavirus advisory panel, puts it, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” In a recent interview with the BBC he was quoted as saying: “There’s a mistaken belief by some countries that they can vaccinate their populations and they’ll be safe. It simply isn’t true!” Until the entire world is successful in ridding their populations of the ever-mutating SARS-Cov-2 virus the pandemic will still be there.

The cat and mouse vaccine game
“The longer it takes some countries to get the vaccines,” says Karim, “the more danger there is of keeping the virus not only alive but mutating. This is a real threat to the entire world. Standing together is in everyone’s interests.”
Around the world scientists, epidemiologists and virologists are trying to analyse the 501Y.V2 variant against the current vaccines and antibodies in people who were infected early in the pandemic.

Does the vaccine mean safety for the recipient?
In a recent WHO “Science in Five” online talk, Dr Katherine O’Brien, director of the immunisation, vaccines and biologicals department at the WHO, answered several pertinent questions on people’s immunity after they’ve had the vaccination.

When does immunity kick in?
Right now, we have two-dose vaccines with a good immune response kicking in within two weeks of the first dose. After the second dose the immunity will get even stronger in a shorter period of time.

How long does vaccination immunity last?
We still don’t know how long immunity lasts from these vaccines. We’re currently tracking people who have received the vaccine to find out whether their immune response is durable and to see how long it lasts against the disease.

After you’ve been vaccinated can you still infect others?
The clinical trials demonstrated that these vaccines protect people against the disease. What we don’t know yet is whether or not they protect people from transmitting it to someone else (even if the vaccinated person has no symptoms), which is a really important part of our understanding around what these vaccines do.

Once we’re vaccinated how long do we still need to take precautions?
Until we fully understand what vaccines can or can’t do we definitely need to take precautions. In some countries there’s very broad transmission and in others it’s totally out of control. It’s really going to depend on what communities and countries can do to crush the virus and the transmission. In that way the vaccines can do their best job at preventing this disease. Right now we don’t have evidence in certain areas, such as children. So those age groups are going to continue to be at risk of both infections as well as transmitting to other people.

The other danger is simply not having enough vaccines to protect everyone. So, we have to continue wearing masks, physical distancing, sanitising, handwashing and not gathering in big groups. Only time will tell how long this will go on. Once we get broad vaccination in the community and know more about what the vaccine can actually do to prevent infection, we can slowly start taking our foot off the pedal. But right now we just need to make sure this dreadful pandemic doesn’t escalate again.

According to Burt Rodrigues, CEO of Biodx biological chemical technologies: “Vaccination remains a personal choice – whether you are prepared to face the odds register and get vaccinated. It’s better to be mentally healthy than not.”

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