The vaccine, The virus and The human rights conundrum

No matter what your views are of the Covid19 vaccine, it’s an integral cog in allowing the world, and aviation, return to some form of normality. However, a more significant issue has been brewing in the ethics and human rights department. Airline bosses and employees alike have been caught up in this multi-edged debate. The question at hand, is it fair for an airline to make it mandatory for employees to get vaccinated against the virus? This month, I made it my mission to draw a line under this fraught and challenging issue to find some clarity in this whirlpool of unresolved disputes.

Covid19 Vaccine providing human right issues amongst employers
International travel this year may be dependant on a fast roll-out of the Covid19 vaccine. Photo: AltoVita

Children’s stories would have us believe there is always a villain and a hero. Take the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an example. The lion, a courageous hero, and the witch, a power-hungry villain.  The lion overcomes the witch in the end with significant help from some adventurous kids. However, anyone who has read the book or watched the chronicles of Narnia would know there’s a lot more to it. Similar can be said regarding how employers are approaching mandatory vaccination against Covid19. The vaccine, the hero, coming to save humanity from the pandemic. The virus, the villain, terrorising the world. The airline; caught in the middle of the warzone, trying to avoid legal landmines while attempting to resurrect the peace.

Looking at this head-on, to determine what an employer can do and can’t do, we need to know what’s enforceable by law, not just policy. The difference is significant, as some companies have found out during the pandemic. However, what happens when the law does not define what can and can’t be done? There appear to be several grey areas in many countries that make it difficult for a person to win a case against an employer for unlawful dismal due to refusing to get vaccinated. While these employers may not be purposefully using these loopholes and grey areas in law to their advantage, it’s proving to be a rising issue. Not just this year with Covid19 but the seasonal flu jab too.

Why are people still so hesitant to get the vaccine
Why are people still hesitant to get the vaccine, and what can be done to counter the problem? Photo: Nikkei montage ©

Demons are lying in the darkest depths of this saga, way beyond what the vaccine means for the economy and aviation. The truth is, people don’t trust what they see and hear. Why should they? After all, governments have not always been transparent during the pandemic, and many preventable deaths have occurred in the wake of secrecy. As humans, it’s in our nature to be cautious and inquisitive. If something doesn’t feel right, we will avoid it. One of the most significant reasons a lack of trust has arisen can be attributed to how research, and findings have been presented. Humans are the most complex yet simple beings in existence. I mean that if we don’t understand something, we don’t trust it. The Coronavirus vaccine, in principle, is a feat of genius. Modern vaccines can take somewhere between 5 to 10 years to produce, while the Covid jab has taken less than 12 months. Not only did it take nearly 90% less time to produce, but it’s also a type of vaccine that has never been produced on this scale before, making the science relatively new.

Shouldn’t it take longer to prove a vaccine is safe to distribute?

There are two ways you can tackle this question. Firstly, it’s new technology. We have no previous vaccine to compare this to. Everything from science to production and distribution is different from anything we have done before. So, in theory, no one can accurately tell you how long the vaccine should take to produce. The next thing to take into consideration is how much we already know about curing Coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are a family of respiratory diseases which include everything from the common cold to SARS and MERS. As we already know how these viruses spread and infect, it reduces the amount of time we spend initially researching Covid19. That’s not to say this process should be quick, as the preparedness and reaction to the Covid outbreak have been nothing short of incredible.

a man suspected of dying from Covid19 in is home in a residential block in Wuhan
Where it all began: pictured above, a man suspected of dying from Covid19 in his home in a residential block in Wuhan. February 1st, 2020. Photo: ChinaTopix via AP

But to more accurately answer “how long should it take to produce a safe Covid19 vaccine”, Jennifer Pancorbo, Ph.D., director of industry programs and research at NC State’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center, says this;

I am not sure anyone knows this accurately at this point, since no mRNA vaccine has been manufactured before at any scale close to what will be required for COVID-19. I am going to dare say that it will take at least a couple of weeks per batch.

On asking how can we be sure a vaccine produced in such little time is safe, and if Pancorbo herself intends to take the vaccine when available, she stated;

Yes. The approval process followed by FDA is very thorough and trustworthy. And, particularly for COVID-19, a lot of information about the vaccine candidates has been made public from early on, which gives me an additional confidence in the process.

Ultimately, views on the vaccine’s safety at this point are a subjective topic. However, there is definitely more than enough evidence and plenty of data suggesting it’s safe for global distribution. Nevertheless, stories continue to emerge through media cracks and crevises on how the vaccine has “caused death” in some who have partaken.

One example of this is a mother from Utah in the United States. Kassidi Kurill, who lived in Ogden, took the second dose of the Moderna Covid19 vaccine on February 1st. Just four days later, she sadly passed away. Kirill was described as a healthy 39-year-old mother with no known underlying conditions. It’s thought Kurill suffered a liver failure on the day of her death, and doctors were unable to get her into a stable condition to perform a liver transplant. An autopsy result has yet to be made public; however, just last week, the Utah Department of Health and the Office of Medical Examiner (OME) released a statement that raised more than one eyebrow. After conducting probes, the report said, “The OME has determined the COVID-19 vaccines have caused NO DEATHS to date in Utah. The OME is committed to investigating any deaths that fall under its jurisdiction where decedents had recently received the COVID-19 vaccine.” The statement goes on to plead the media not to draw conclusions until an autopsy is made available. Much of the information was centered around reinforcing confidence in the vaccine and reminding people of its importance. Whether an adverse reaction to the drug caused Kurill’s tragic death, it’s just more fuel in a growing fire of uncertainty.

Vaccine confidence poll by YouGov
YouGov polled vaccine confidence between the 7th and 20th of December 2020. Photo: Reuters

In a survey of vaccine confidence carried in mid-December 2020, an alarming number of people said they would not receive the vaccine. Mainstream media has led us to believe that those against taking the vaccine are in a small minority, but this can’t be further from the truth. In the survey, only 26 percent of French voters said they would get vaccinated. This is well below the vaccine’s required uptake to eradicate the virus. Most countries surveyed report numbers below which the vaccine will provide safe immunity to the general population. While these numbers offer little hope, the reasons associated with them are correlative with trust yet again.

Conspiracy and misinformation on the web are rife, and it’s having a significant impact on vaccine confidence. After Qantas CEO Alan Joyce announced he intended to make vaccination mandatory at the end of last year, a sky news youtube comment section became inundated with people declaring their true feelings about the vaccine.

Youtube reactions to Qantas mandatory vaccination rule for international travel
Reactions on Sky News Australia’s YouTube videos respond to Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s intentions to mandate vaccinations on Qantas flights. Photo: Sky News Australia/YouTube

T Man says, “Never will I fly with this airline that has no regard for human rights and people’s choice to what they want to put in their body.” While another user claimed, “Isn’t it funny how they interview people that would have it, and yet A current affair poll showed 88% would not get it“. Despite not locating the results of the aforementioned poll, it’s clear to see under the original Facebook post that the vast majority did not approve of the Qantas CEO’s decision.

I was so intrigued by these social media comments that I wanted to find out what people in my circle thought. I posted three yes or no questions on Instagram earlier today and stopped the poll after 2 hours. The results were surprising, mainly because I was shocked to discover how much engagement I received from my modest 300 followers, but I was not expecting so much uncertainty and skepticism. To the question, “If vaccination became mandatory to fly internationally, would you get vaccinated?”, 57% said they would, and 43% said they wouldn’t. When asked, “Is it against human rights to mandate the vaccine?” just 36% said yes and 64% no. Lastly, I asked the big question at hand, “Should an employer reserve the right to fire an employee for refusing to get the vaccine without reason?” Interestingly, just 38%  said yes, and 62% said no, which meant that most people saw no issue with vaccines being mandatory but not legally enforceable by an employer.

Busting the vaccine myth once and for all

In short, no, you won’t grow tentacles or start speaking a foreign language. Those were just a small selection of comments I have seen online in the past month! The CDC wants to clarify that the Covid19 vaccine is now the most researched in history. However, they openly admit that the vaccine is still in its early stages, and there are inconsistencies. Though, the key takeaway is that these inconsistencies are merely statistical anomalies. No vaccine will ever be perfect; people still tragically die from complications of tried and tested vaccines such as measles.

Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines, and these vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history. This monitoring includes using both established and new safety monitoring systems to make sure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. These vaccines cannot give you COVID-19. After COVID-19 vaccination, you may have some side effects. These are normal signs that your body is building protection. The side effects from COVID-19 vaccination, such as chills or tiredness, may affect your ability to do daily activities, and they should go away in a few days. – State the CDC

Qantas boss Alan Joyce wants to mandate vaccines on Qantas flights however his views were widely criticised in Australia
Qantas boss Alan Joyce wants to mandate vaccines on Qantas flights; however, his views were widely criticized in Australia. Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

There is a fine line between saving the world and preserving human rights

Back to the seemingly multi-sided question at hand, what can and can’t airlines do? And now that we have learned why people may or may not be against the vaccine, is it fair for an employer to fire an employee should they refuse to get vaccinated? This falls into a grey corridor of conflicting laws. Technically, the answer in most parts of the world is yes, depending on the job; however, it’s unlikely to be enforceable by law. The Australian fair work ombudsman (FWO) states, “Employers can direct their employees to be vaccinated if the direction is lawful and reasonable. Whether a direction is lawful and reasonable has to be assessed on a case by case basis.” However, the FWO also goes on to say, “In the current circumstances, the overwhelming majority of employers should assume that they won’t be able to require their employees to be vaccinated against coronavirus.”

While airline workers are considered front-line workers, according to the Australian government, mandatory vaccination cannot be legally enforced even if you are working on the front line. The FWO website states, “There are currently no laws or public health orders in Australia that specifically enable employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against coronavirus. The Australian Government’s policy is that receiving a vaccination is voluntary, although it aims to have as many Australians vaccinated as possible.” The only way at the time of writing, an employer, including airlines, can make vaccination enforceable in Australia is if a state or territory government implements a specific law. Alternatively, if you agree to an employment contract which states that the employer can ask you to get vaccinated, you can then also be fired for refusal to comply as you are breaking the contract. Thankfully, no known instances of such situations have occurred to date. Despite this human rights win, Australia has made vaccines compulsory before.

Since 2015, Australian citizens have lost important social, economic and medical rights, under the ‘No Jab, No Pay and ‘No Jab, No Play’ mandatory vaccination laws, which were not justified on either individual health or public health grounds.” Aneeta Hafemeister, president of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network, said in a Submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Hafemeister points out that Australia is the only liberal democracy without a constitutional bill of rights or comprehensive federal human rights legislation. This means most rights that Australians take for granted are not adequately protected against legislative excess. What Hafemeister fails to realize is that many countries in the world make child vaccination a legal requirement. France, for example, has a very high vaccine hesitancy rate, so the government made eleven vaccines mandatory in 2018. The year before this, the Italian government made 12 vaccines obligatory for school children.

Anti-Vaccine protests in London
Anti-Vaccine protests in London last year, September 2020. Photo: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Now that we know employees cannot be forced to get vaccinated, can airline passengers face no travel without a jab? As previously mentioned, until a government makes it law, the airline can’t legally enforce passengers to get vaccinated; however, they can lawfully refuse them onboard a flight. In most territories around the world, a company reserves the right to refuse service to a customer. So effectively, while they can’t make you get a jab, you could still be left flightless and powerless without the jab. Although, what does this mean for those in demographics that have no access to a vaccine yet? Not every country is rolling out the vaccine like the US and the UK. For example, Indonesia has not begun a rollout, and it may take another year to see a widespread roll-out that could leave 300 million people flightless. Though, this is a story for another debate!

On the question of mandatory vaccines in the workplace in different territories, David Sheppard, an employment lawyer at Capital Law, said on the subject of the UK, “They can’t force that person (employee) to take the vaccine by law.” He said if a worker refuses a vaccination, disciplinary action by a business in the UK could lead to claims of unfair dismissal or human rights discrimination. Some countries, like the US, can have more relaxed laws surrounding employment, making it more difficult to conclude right from wrong. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said companies could require vaccination as a condition of entering the workplace.

Danish Vaccination centre
Would you get vaccinated if it was mandatory to fly? Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

Emirates are the latest airline to push vaccination on employees

Vaccination policy, coming to a town near you. It’s no longer a matter of if but a matter of when. Almost every person on the planet will be affected by vaccination policies, whether in the workplace or on commercial travel. However, the hot topic in aviation is centered around who should be told to vaccinate to allow aviation to return to a new normal. On May the 4th, a cruise ship called the Spirit of Adventure is due to depart on its maiden voyage. It’ll be a maiden voyage like never seen before as the ship’s owner, Saga, is the first large business to make the vaccine mandatory for their customers. Interestingly, however, Saga has chosen not to make vaccination compulsory for its employees. Speaking to the Finacial Times, saga said, “We would like the crew to be vaccinated if and when they can be. At the moment, we can’t be sure that they’re going to be able to do that, so the idea of compulsion would not feel right.”

Despite Saga’s reasonable policy, many airlines do not share the same approach. Emirates is the first airline to make crew pay for their Covid19 test should they refuse the vaccine which is being provided free by the airline. Around 60% of staff have already had or are scheduled to receive the Covid jab. It’s worth remembering that everyone in the UAE has access to a vaccine regardless of their demographic, which isn’t the case in many places worldwide. Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, has also reaffirmed the airline’s position on vaccination, saying that it will become widespread practice to vaccinate all crew when other airlines pick it up. On the flipside, Kirby stated that he did not want to be the only carrier enforcing the vaccine. Southwest airlines are also waiting for widespread rollout before making the vaccine mandatory for their staff. The US airline declared they would provide vaccines to all employees free of charge.

Crew stood in front of an Emirates A380
The crew stood in front of an Emirates A380. Photo: Emirates

Along this journey full of nearly unanswerable questions, I’ve come to realize one thing above all else. Airline bosses have an insurmountable challenge balancing what’s best for the carrier, its employees, and its passengers. However, as the vaccine is beneficial to most, educating the general public with correct facts and data is paramount to a successful vaccine rollout. Ask yourselves, how would you end this pandemic without a vaccine? If there were another way, it would be many decades off, and the way we are living right now is unsustainable and against human nature. The bottom line is that no one can and should ever force you to do anything with your body that you don’t want to do. Just understand that in this new world we live in, you may lose some privileges should you not partake. How long could mandates last, it’s anyone’s guess.

Do you think a business should reserve the right to terminate an employee’s employment should they refuse vaccination without reason? Would you still travel internationally should vaccination be mandatory, or would you wait? Let us know in the comments.

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Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
Contributing Reporter - Jonathan is a creative professional of international acclaim with a strong background in aviation journalism, fashion photography and travel writing. Jonathan writes about commercial aviation, travel and tourism, aerospace engineering, and sustainability. With extensive industry knowledge and connections, Jonathan works closely with tech start-ups and established global brands and agencies in Australia and worldwide.


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