Covid-19 and the affect it has on people’s daily lives has been a major topic of conversation for well over a year now, particularly when it comes to the vaccines being rolled out across the country in an effort to stop the spread of the virus and bring about a return to some form of normality.
But while discussing vaccines in the workplace is one thing, what happens if those discussions become heated? Employers need to consider several issues that have the potential to cause problems.
Clinical psychologist Liane Lurie says information about hypothetical mandatory vaccination policies has been shown to elicit resistance, particularly when vaccination intentions and support for mandatory policies are low.
“What we are seeing now are people feeling forced to vaccinate because of a mandatory vaccination policy hovering over us. And the hesitancy around vaccination exacerbates the anxiety people had found themselves already dealing with – in the midst of the pandemic – in the beginning, and this doesn’t make it any easier,” said Lurie.
According to Angie Vorster, a clinical psychologist at the University of the Free State’s School of Clinical Medicine, most people will eventually feel the pressure to vaccinate. However, this is not ideal.
“The utopian outcome would be that people voluntarily choose vaccination. We know that forcing people to do anything has historically not been very effective. It is far more useful to provide adequate education and to include important community members and influential people in society, in encouraging basic health-promoting behaviour,” she said.
She said mandatory vaccination would not have been necessary had there not already been a distinct division between those who are willing to take the shots and those who are hesitant.
“It is fair to say that this Covid-19 pandemic merely served to create awareness of the vast inequalities in society, as well as the significantly varying degree to which all people are informed regarding medicine and science, have an altruistic attitude and are socially aware.”
"While many are fearful they might lose their jobs should companies adopt a policy of mandatory vaccination, and they aren’t up for it, alleviating fear in people is all that is needed.
“Fear is alleviated when people feel safe. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped this sense of safety at work (and indeed anywhere) from all of us. We can only feel as safe as we actually are; consequently, enforcing strict Covid-19 protocols and encouraging vaccination would be the only currently available methods of ensuring the safety of employees (and all those who are exposed to them),” she says.
Echoing her sentiments is Professor Susan Goldstein, the public health specialist chief operating officer and deputy director at the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), who says some people will inevitably feel forced, but this is probably the minority. Most people feel socially isolated and it seems that vaccination is the only way back to normality.
She says a policy of mandatory vaccination is, unlike discrimination, based on something you have no control over, such as sex, gender, race, age, etc.
“To remain unvaccinated is a choice (assuming it is easily available to you). As I understand it, no-one is going to be forced to vaccinate, but unvaccinated people will not have as much access as those who are,” says Goldstein.
She also believes that vaccination could alleviate the fears that many people have around the safety of Covid-19.
On whether companies and institutions will be in a space where they can accommodate "non-vaxxers", who choose not to vaccinate for whatever personal reasons, she said if vaccination only affected the individual, then this would be reasonable.
“But not vaccinating infringes on many collective rights and risk of the whole society to additional illness, blocking of hospitals, potential other variants, vulnerable people (such as elderly, and those with cancer) having increased exposure and risking severe disease and death.”
Meanwhile, Wits University and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have adopted a mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy.
UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen says that at a meeting on November 25 , the university council resolved that all of its campuses and facilities will be mandatory vaccination sites from January, 2022.
“The vaccination policy states that staff, post-doctoral research fellows and students will need to provide UJ with their vaccination status (eg first vaccination completed, or fully vaccinated) before gaining access to any campus or facility. These measures also apply to ad hoc contractors, identified stakeholders and visitors,” he says.
Esterhuizen says the outcome will ensure that staff, post-doctoral research fellows and students have optimal access to the university’s precincts for purposes of working, learning, research, laboratory and clinical work, while protecting the health and safety of the university community and its stakeholders.
He adds that exemptions based on medical or religious grounds will be considered.
“It is important to note, however, that UJ will balance the rights of individuals against the collective rights of the broader university and the surrounding community. As the collective rights take precedence, the rights of individuals may be limited, in terms of section 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.”
The University of Pretoria (UP) has also sent out a communique to the university community regarding their planning around the return to campus and the resumption of face-to-face teaching and learning and other activities in 2022. The university has encouraged its staff and students to vaccinate.
“With the various vaccines that are proving to be effective in limiting the spread of the virus and in preventing serious illness and death... among the vaccinated population, the higher education sector is anticipating the safe return of its employees to the workplace and the re-opening of its campuses for face-to-face university activities,” says UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe, adding that they strongly encourage everyone to vaccinate.
“We want everyone to vaccinate. Vaccines protect everyone’s health and significantly reduce severe illness, hospitalisation and death. Vaccines are safe. Those who have doubts or are hesitant should seek more information from medical experts, including staff from our faculty of health sciences.”