There have been mixed reactions since the federal government announced plans to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for its workers. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, announced the plan in Abuja at a recent meeting of the Health Commissioners’ Forum with Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and health partners. He said once vaccines are available for everyone, the federal government would make vaccination compulsory for federal civil servants.
The SGF explained further that the country did not have sufficient vaccines at the moment, and will therefore, not institute mandatory COVID-19 vaccination immediately. He said “the mandatory vaccination for federal workers became imperative due to the role they perform not just within the country but also on behalf of the federal government with other countries, some of which have started insisting on compulsory COVID-19 vaccination.”
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Speaking on the matter, the CEO of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, said the basic rule of law, which stipulates that one’s human right stops where others’ rights begin, shall be applied to individuals who refuse to take the vaccine; adding that “You have a right to refuse vaccines, but you do not have the right to endanger the health of others.”
It would be recalled that Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State had earlier announced that any resident of the state who refused to take the vaccine would be barred from public places. Ondo State Government also said it would bar persons without proof of vaccination from churches, mosques and other public places.
Reacting, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and health workers under the aegis of the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) separately faulted state governments that have made COVID-19 vaccine compulsory. While the NMA said the people had the right to reject vaccines the same way they could reject medical treatment, JOHESU stated that “the move to make vaccination compulsory is senseless.” Though, a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, issued an order restraining Governor Obaseki from enforcing compulsory COVID-19 vaccination in his state, latest reports say the government is going ahead with its plan.
This decision by two state governments and proposal by the federal government came as a shock to many Nigerians. This is because out of the over 200 million population, less than four million people in the country have been vaccinated. It was expected that before such a statement, government would have ensured that there are enough doses to cover eligible members of the target population. With vaccination centres still limited in most states, just as many citizens yet cast doubt on the existence of the virus, the time may not be ripe to make the vaccine mandatory.
We are also concerned that the focus is on workers alone, rather than the entire population. We must note that the battle against the virus cannot be worn in that manner. Any effort towards tackling COVID-19 must be one that would incorporate all citizens. Government should also be careful not to create a window for Nigerians to forge fake COVID-19 vaccination certificates. The attendant exigencies associated with mandatory policies, such as happened under NIN registration, are usually not pleasant.
Before government enforces the mandatory policy, there is need for massive and coordinated enlightenment campaigns at all levels to educate citizens on the dangers of not getting vaccinated. Traditional and religious leaders as well as non-governmental organisations should be involved in this advocacy that should aim at tackling vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. Citizens’ response to issues of responsibility is better appreciated when done out of conviction, not out of coercion. People need to be convinced that aside of endangering the lives of others, they could be denied entry into other countries for not taking COVID-19 vaccination.
When vaccination centres become easily accessible to all Nigerians, it would be time to proclaim the mandatory law. At that stage, there could be sanctions for individuals who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19, including denying them certain privileges as citizens. To increase citizens’ access to the vaccine, government should support its local production. We encourage research institutes and the private sector to collaborate and make this happen soon.