Given the increasing number of deaths globally, the question to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for everyone has become a subject of debate. Policies to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory are being signed into law in many countries, and the South African government is also considering a mandate. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa had set up a task team to consult on making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory (City press). According to City press, this is the government’s latest effort to boost the number of vaccinated people. In the president’s address to the nation (News24), he urged South Africans to vaccinate in large numbers as it may become mandatory to access certain activities. According to the businesstech report, approximately 40% of the adult population has been vaccinated as of January 13th, 2022, despite an ample supply of available shots. The hesitancy to take the vaccine remains high. While some people refused to be vaccinated because they doubted the vaccine’s efficacy, others chose not to be vaccinated for reasons best known to them. News24 reveals that when many people are vaccinated, the coronavirus will have a hard time circulating because most people it encounters are immune. This implies that the more people are vaccinated, the less likely they will be exposed to harmful pathogens. Supporting the move for COVID-19 mandatory vaccinations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) explains that mandatory vaccination is necessary to avoid lockdown restrictions. Cosatu further emphasized that “Getting to a 90% vaccination rate is in the interest of our members”. Re-echoing Cosatu, Matthew Parks (the parliamentary coordinator for Cosatu) highlights that with mandatory vaccinations, people’s lives and jobs can be saved, and lockdowns can be avoided (News24). According to the trade federation, “vaccines are central to ensuring the right to life is protected and persons who have not been vaccinated pose a serious risk to others, including those who have vaccinated.”
In support of the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination, several institutions, including higher learning institutions, have announced that, by January 2022, they will not allow staff, students, or anyone else to access their campuses if they have not been vaccinated. Businesstech reports that “some of South Africa’s largest private school groups have already made a move to introduce a mandatory vaccination policy, with Curro Holdings giving teachers until the end of the year to be vaccinated.” Other independent schools are opting to introduce vaccine mandates on a case-by-case basis, with many still relying on a hybrid-online model to conduct teaching, says businesstech report. As the South African higher education institutions become emphatic on vaccines, some universities such as the University of Cape Town, Rhodes university and Wits are proposing to introduce mandatory vaccination policies for both staff and students in 2022. Also, proof of vaccination against Covid-19 will be required for everyone entering their premises. News24 reports that “The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) have urged members to vaccinate.” Furthermore, their decision on whether they fully support mandatory vaccination will be made known in the coming days. However, making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory, especially for higher learning institutions, has been a bone of contention in South Africa. According to Imraan Mahomed, Amy King and Syllabus Mogashoa (Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH)) there may be challenges in implementing a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies in South Africa. This is because the South Africa legal considerations do not allow a blanket enforcement. Hence it is essential to understand the implications of mandatory vaccinations on students and learning.
Implications of mandatory vaccinations on students and learning.
There are several implications that may arise from mandatory vaccinations for students, but the three major ones are discussed in this section.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the country, many students who generally trust the science behind vaccines have been hesitant when it comes to taking the vaccine, says News24. The most common reason cited for not wanting to get a vaccine was the speed at which it was developed. In other words, some have refused to be vaccinated because they doubted the efficacy of the vaccine. At the same time, others chose not to be vaccinated for reasons best known to them. This implies that those students who are not vaccinated will endanger the lives of those vaccinated. This is because the coronavirus can still infect the vaccinated people, which can negatively impact the students’ learning activities. According to The Disaster Management Act for COVID-19 regulations under regulation 14(3), any person “who intentionally exposes another person to COVID-19 may be prosecuted for an offense such as assault, attempted murder or murder”.
Student representatives’ council of the universities may head for showdown
Mandatory vaccination may cause the student representatives council of the universities to head for a showdown. According to the Student Representative Council (SRC) of The University of Western Cape’s (UWC), anxiety among students is rising as the higher education institutions are more emphatic on mandatory vaccine policies. News24 reports that in 2021, some universities adopted the mandatory vaccine policies that were set to take effect from January 2022 to combat the spread of coronavirus among students and staff and on campuses. However, some student representatives have opposed the decision, saying the policies would exclude members of the university (News24). This implies that if the students’ concerns regarding the mandatory vaccine are not resolved amicably, it may lead to students heading for protest, which may disrupt the students’ teaching and learning programme.
To ensure that the teaching and learning activities commence without any hindrance, several universities are planning to opt for the hybrid system. This is to support the continuation of teaching and learning due to the hesitancy that may arise from mandatory vaccination. Hybrid learning, otherwise known as blended learning, combines online and on-campus activities and interaction. Students may attend on-campus sessions, online sessions in the same time zone, or online sessions in a different time zone. It is safe to assume that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of higher education as the hybrid system will now have to be adopted to ensure continuity of academic activities.
What can institutions of higher learning do to mitigate the situation?
Safety promotion and violence prevention should be seen as part of the broader mission of any higher learning institution. Hence, every higher learning institution must be proactive to mitigate any possible violence that may arise from mandatory vaccination. Some of the proactive steps that should be taken are discussed as follows:
The higher learning institutions must promote vaccine confidence among the students, parents, and guardians, as suggested by the center for disease control (CDC). Institutions in higher education can use email newsletters, students’ workshops, students’ orientations programs, and staff meetings to promote vaccine confidence among the students and staff. According to CDC, “vaccine confidence is the trust that people have in recommended vaccines.”
All higher learning institutions must be prepared to address COVID-19 vaccine questions and misinformation with the students and their families by developing or sharing materials from credible sources. The CDC has come up with some useful tips for talking about COVID-19 vaccines.
Because violence is a multifaceted problem, solutions must engage multiple campus and community stakeholders (Linda, the author of Preventing Violence and Promoting Safety in Higher Education Settings). Hence, there should be consultation with numerous stakeholders, including representatives from students’ affairs, campus law enforcement, health services, campus disciplinary systems, victim advocacy, and the parents. Campus risk managers and legal counsel should ensure that the mandatory vaccination policies comply with the local, state, and federal laws.
In conclusion, there is a need to educate everyone (especially the students) that vaccination will help stimulate their immune system, thereby protecting them from the virus. Although there may be side effects, such as mild fever, muscle aches, headache, feeling tired, pain or chills, as few people observe, but not everybody experiences this. It should be noted that people react to the vaccine differently, and it is also possible that some people may not experience any of these side effects. Also, it is recommended that the government should organize more awareness programs across the higher institutions to enlighten the students about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. The government should also provide incentives such as food vouchers or monetary incentives for those students who opt for vaccines. These incentives may encourage others to get the vaccine.
Dr. Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her capacity.