COVID-19 vaccines and your rights and responsibilities

A woman who has been vaccinated

What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

The government announced on Friday (16 April) that the Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) is open for those over the age of 60. Vaccination of healthcare workers is ongoing and, though incomplete, will continue concurrently with the next phase of the roll-out. Registration is underway, but the vaccine will not be available to the over-60s until mid-May (currently scheduled for 17 May). If you are over 60, click here to register.

A woman who has been vaccinated

As of 15 April, more than 841 million vaccine doses had been administered worldwide. This does not equate to 841 million people, as most of the vaccines in use require two doses, and many people in countries like the US and UK have had both doses. But it is still phenomenal progress in a short period of time. Although the Seychelles leads the world with 68% of its population vaccinated, it is a tiny country and vaccine roll-out does not present the same challenges as elsewhere. Israel has the most people fully vaccinated, at 56%. 

Here in South Africa, just 0.5% of our population has been vaccinated to date – so far only healthcare workers (292,623 in total as at 15 April). The extension of the vaccine roll-out to the over-60s and other priority groups in Phase 2 is welcome, but what does it mean? There are concerns that vaccination will become a requirement for entry into certain public spaces. Some people are worried they will be denied access to their places of work if not vaccinated.

Vaccination is voluntary

Government has made it abundantly clear that vaccination is entirely voluntary. No one will be forced, coerced or cajoled into being vaccinated. The process of vaccination includes a consent component. The Bill of Rights in our Constitution guarantees freedom and security of the person, including the right to bodily and psychological integrity. This means you have the right to security in and control over your body and you cannot be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without your informed consent.

Some people have medical reasons for declining a vaccine (though the risks of COVID-19 far outweigh the risks of any of the vaccines), and others have a deep-seated mistrust of the medical establishment. Their views will be respected. The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. Vaccination or lack thereof cannot be used as a condition for employment or for access to any public space. Private establishments, however, are entitled to determine their own conditions of entry, as long as these are not discriminatory.

Social responsibility

However, while everyone has the individual right to decide whether to be vaccinated or not, social responsibility is also important. In the US, vaccine deniers are hindering efforts to lift COVID-19 restrictions, the very restrictions they are complaining about. In the words of Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s leading infectious disease expert, “This is a public health issue, it’s not a civil liberties issue.” He went on to say, “…the way you get rid of those restrictions is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and as efficiently as possible. When that happens for absolutely certain you’re going to see the level of virus in the community go down and down and down to the point where you would not have to have those public health restrictions.” 

Herd immunity

This is known as “herd immunity”, a term that has been much in the news lately. Herd immunity, also known as population immunity, is, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection. WHO supports achieving herd immunity through vaccination, not by allowing a disease to spread through any segment of the population, as this would result in unnecessary cases and deaths.” 

One of the aims of achieving herd immunity is to keep vulnerable groups who cannot get vaccinated (e.g. due to health conditions) safe and protected from COVID-19. Different diseases have different herd immunity thresholds. For example, with polio, the proportion of the population that must be immunised for everyone to be protected is 80%. COVID-19 is too new for scientists to be sure, but the South African Department of Health estimates that 60-70% of our population needs to be immune to reach the stage where the virus can no longer spread in the community.

No one is safe until everyone is safe

Recently 24 world leaders came together to call for a global treaty for pandemics, endorsed by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO. Calling COVID-19 “the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s”, the leaders said, in a joint article, that COVID-19 has served as “a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe”. They were speaking specifically about international tensions over vaccine supplies and more broadly about the need for solidarity and cooperation. 

The message is clear: no one is safe until everyone is safe. The right to refuse a medical procedure like a vaccine is everyone’s constitutional right. But in the interests of getting our economy and our country back to normal, after the devastation of the past year, the collective need must take priority over individual preference.

We urge everyone to heed the call and be vaccinated against COVID-19, unless you are unable to for medical reasons. 

For advice on your rights

SD Law is a Cape Town law firm, also in Johannesburg and Durban, that is passionate about the law and about upholding the Constitution and defending human rights. If you think your rights are being infringed, give Simon a call on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion about your case. 

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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