Vaccination mandates are required in some cases, but cannot be linked to the provision of social benefits
The Center’s clarification before the Supreme Court that it issued no vaccination warrants for any purpose highlights state governments and municipal agencies denying access to various locations as well as various public services to unvaccinated people. Protecting public health is among the primary responsibilities of state governments and civic organizations. To that extent, their desire to promote vaccination and mitigate public health threats is understandable. As we have argued before, public health concerns about infectious spreads must sometimes trump individual rights when it comes to an epidemic. Therefore, restricting or denying access to public transport or to markets, shopping malls, places of work and worship is justifiable, whether by government or private bodies. The same goes for vaccination mandates for government personnel and government teachers.
But it is quite different when the vaccination status is linked to social benefits. Madhya Pradesh has linked PDS rations to vaccination and the Kerala health department had ordered government hospitals to suspend free Covid treatment to unvaccinated patients. A poor person’s entitlement to PDS rations poses little threat to public health. The denial of food rations to poor households is a terrible outcome that cannot be justified on any grounds. The government’s obligation to protect every human life may lie in the right to life under Article 21, some scholars argue. But more than that, denying poor citizens free treatment is a travesty of a state’s basic duties. An unvaccinated wealthy citizen can access private health care. The basic test of humanity therefore says that a low-income Indian cannot be denied public health care.
India’s pool of unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people is worrying, and states are right to be concerned. But they should keep social benefits out of the equation. And, more importantly, they need to do a lot more to convince zero-dosers and mono-dosers to get those bites. This should now include serious plans to bring vaccines to the people.
This article appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of the Times of India.
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