Are COVID-19 vaccine mandates human rights violations?

Canada is the latest country to see a large-scale protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Canada is the latest country to see a large-scale protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Image: REUTERS/Patrick Doyle/File Photo

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Probably not, experts say, because everyone has a fundamental right to be protected from the spread of the disease.
  • Yet, tensions have increased as more vaccine mandates are implemented.
  • Protests in Canada have drawn renewed attention to the issue.

The article "Are COVID-19 vaccine mandates human rights violations?" was first published on 24th August 2021 and has been updated on 31st January 2022.

Even Napoleon couldn’t force everyone to get vaccinated.

The French strongman managed to bend most of Europe to his will, yet when it came to smallpox he could merely encourage his compatriots to get immunized against the deadly disease as a civic duty.

In some ways, not much has changed. Governments and private-sector employers around the world have encouraged those fortunate enough to have access to COVID-19 vaccines to take them – often with civic-minded prompts similar to Napoleon’s, but increasingly through targeted vaccine mandates.

These measures help keep people safe. But they’ve also touched a nerve.

In Canada, thousands of people gathered in Ottawa this past weekend to protest the government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, spontaneously building on what had started as a more narrow demonstration staged by truck drivers.

The rally in Canada was only the most recent unrest. After the French government sought to make vaccination virtually unavoidable with rules and mandates, a nationwide protest drew nearly 240,000 people. Parents in South Korea have protested vaccine mandates in schools, and an estimated 16,000 people turned out in Hamburg earlier this month to protest vaccination rules.

Protests against private-sector mandates have also cropped up, though companies like Google and Citigroup have steadfastly required employees to get jabbed before coming to the office.

Some argue COVID-19 vaccine mandates are human rights violations. Not really, say experts on actual human rights violations.

In fact, some point to the more fundamental right of everyone to be protected from COVID-19 – particularly as variants continue to disproportionately impact the unvaccinated.

Image: World Economic Forum

Vaccine mandates in the past

In the mid-19th century, the British government made vaccination against smallpox compulsory. Local Anti-Vaccination Leagues were formed in response, brandishing the same hesitancy and uneven understanding of science that recur among anti-vaccination activists today. In many ways, not much is new.

Yet, some things about vaccine mandates do seem to have changed in recent decades.

When a successful polio vaccine candidate was announced in 1953, it made its developer a minor celebrity; parents quickly sought it out for their children without needing coercion. Seven years later, Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” was awarded to “US Scientists.”

But then science became intertwined with the Cold War and government secrecy. Laboratories were bombed, a superfluous and flawed swine flu vaccination effort left dozens of people with a rare neurological disorder, and Soviet disinformation about the origins of AIDS – an epidemic that’s still claiming hundreds of thousands of lives every year – spread around the world. Seeds of doubt were sown everywhere.

So, COVID-19 vaccine mandates may certainly seem like an attractive option to help stem the spread of the disease, as long as everyone affected has equal access (and credible exemptions are possible).

But perhaps a more foundational effort is necessary to rebuild trust in science – potentially making mandates unnecessary.


More on vaccine mandates

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Incentives to take COVID-19 vaccines in India, like subsidized property taxes and discounted restaurant meals, have shown promise, according to this piece. (The Conversation)
  • “No one wants to feel ashamed or belittled because they’re not doing something.” Programs in rural America that traditionally helped farmers are now educating the public about COVID-19 vaccines, according to this piece, and much of the work involves listening. (Kaiser Health News)
  • The large crowds gathered to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates suggest hesitancy may be more common in Europe than survey results indicate, according to this piece – which traces some of the region’s anti-vaccination history. (Institut Montaigne)
  • Vaccination rates among pregnant women have lagged, but this survey of more than 17,000 pregnant and lactating women who received COVID-19 vaccines showed they didn’t experience symptoms more severe than their non-pregnant counterparts. (Science Daily)
  • “Everybody I know is pissed off.” Vaccinated Americans long ago lost patience with their unvaccinated compatriots, according to this piece. (The Atlantic)
  • How vaccine mandates are helping companies: according to this analysis they’re a step firms can take to “internalize the externality” imposed by the non-vaccinated outside their walls, and control the spread of the virus. (Knowledge@Wharton)
  • People infected long ago with SARS have generated particularly powerful antibody responses when vaccinated against COVID-19, according to this study, raising hopes that vaccines can be developed to fully protect against new coronavirus variants. (Nature)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Vaccination, Human Rights, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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