COVID-19 realities and mandatory vaccination


The Federal Government and some state governments can hardly be faulted for their concern on the global devastation so far visited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost two years since the first case was recorded, more than 4.5 million people have died out of over 222 million infected globally. Out of the paltry 2.8 million samples so far tested in Nigeria, 195,890 came out positive and 2,556 persons have died of COVID-19 related complications.

Nevertheless, the government’s policy to arm-twist vaccine hesitancy through mandatory vaccination appears good on paper, but flawed in sound reasoning. In a densely populated country where the majority either live in self-denial or fatigued by its preventive measures, getting more people on the side of herd immunity cannot be done by a marching order or executive fiat. More realistic and civil approach is for governments at all levels to focus more on public enlightenment on safe vaccination, make jabs available for as many citizens that are convinced and intensify other preventive or curative measures.
  
No doubt, Coronavirus pandemic is real and burning fiercely in new variants. Emergence of the vaccine ‘miracle’ was expected to upturn the table globally. While it has slowed down the rate of infection and daily death in droves, inability of vaccines to prevent new infections, deaths and emergence of new variants, have further fueled vaccine hesitancy globally. Nigeria has received less than 10 million doses from donors, and, as in many other countries, there is a growing hesitancy and distrust against vaccination.

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Thus far, 4.43 million doses have been given, with only 1.44 million Nigerians fully vaccinated. Most ludicrous, if not sheer irresponsible, is the laissez-faire attitude of most Nigerians to COVID-19 safety protocols. In public places, such as parties, churches, mosques, markets and even those events organised by government functionaries, the level of compliance with safety guidelines is usually very low.
   
Apparently, in lieu of these chaotic realities and collective amnesia, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, at a meeting of Health Commissioners, recently said the Federal Government shall soon unveil a decision on mandatory vaccination for every employee in the public service. Mustapha reasoned that if the yellow fever vaccine could become a mandatory travel requirement and the world is in a race to herd immunity through vaccination, “the vaccine mandate obviously will come” to Nigeria too.

Already, Edo and Ondo State governments have moved against vaccine hesitancy, banning those without the vaccination green card from accessing public places like banks, markets, hospitals, government offices and religious centres. The executive order is expected to cause a vaccine rush, to bolster the vaccination programme that has only managed to jab 150,000 persons out of over eight million in Edo and Ondo states.
  
As alluring as the approach sounds, it has no basis in science, ethics or logic. Lest we forget, there are concerns on vaccination for which some persons, come what may, would remain hesitant to its sciences. For instance, there are countries like Israel that are closing in on 100 per cent vaccination rate, yet still polling some of the highest rates of new infections. India, South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom participated actively in the clinical trials of vaccines, yet more virulent variants of COVID-19 are emerging from those countries. Is there any connection between the trial and new variants? From findings, the current vaccines do not foreclose the risk of being infected or spreading the virus. Again, vaccines, just like drugs, are bound to have some side-effects no matter how minimal. There are recipients that will have allergies. Some have reported blood clots, neurological damage and even deaths in the United States and United Kingdom. These cases may be minimal in number, but they raise valid concerns that cannot be palmed off without logical arguments.  
  
It is not surprising therefore that a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt granted an exparte order restraining the Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki from enforcing the order mandating all residents of the state to get vaccinated for COVID-19. The governor has said that his administration would challenge the injunction, insisting that the essence of government’s position was for the good of the people, adding that there already exists a law in the state that restricts public gatherings. He also said available statistics in the state showed that all those currently dying of COVID-19 were those who have not been vaccinated.

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The ethics of getting every Nigeria on the jab line is unacceptable as yet, as it may violate some fundamental constitutional rights of Nigerians. Besides, the government has more of a responsibility to provide quality health service delivery for general well-being, not to force dole-outs down their throat in the name of public health. Edo and Ondo states have only 300,000 doses of vaccine between them – a drop in the ocean for its eight-million-plus population. The logical approach is for the states and ditto for the Federal Government, to intensify efforts to secure vaccines enough to go round the citizens and not cause avoidable stampede for unavailable doses.

It is important that government recognises that vaccines are just one of the possible remedies to tackling COVID-19. Without doubt, vaccines are instrumental in saving the inoculated from miserable death. But amid its limitations, the science-proven preventive measures in the forms of physical distancing, face masks and regular hand washing among other hygienic practices are most relevant and must be adhered to, even after one has been inoculated. The Federal and State governors should show better discretion in enforcing those preventive rules and leading by example. Similarly, there are traditional and orthodox prophylaxes to consider, to collectively boost resistance immunity.
  
Nonetheless, fears, real or imaginary, should not keep available vaccines idle and unused. Rather, it should stimulate caution and well-guided interventions by the local authorities. While the Federal and State agencies ensure a more seamless and secured vaccination programme, there should be intensive public enlightenment programmes and adequate monitoring of adverse events among the inoculated to boost public confidence and trust in the system. By extension, there should be neither compulsion in taking the jab, nor proselytising against its benefits. Rather, individuals should be left to make their informed decisions, as part of their constitutional right; while government provides relevant information and enlightenment on COVID-19 vaccination. 

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