Weighing the evidence: On SC’s order against forcible vaccination

The Supreme Court in a decisive order has laid out a fine balance between individual liberty and the state’s right to impose restrictions in the interests of public safety. An individual had the right to refuse vaccination and though the Government could “impose limitations” on rights of individuals, it had to be “reasonable and proportionate” to the extent that it achieved the objective, in this case, containing the spread of the coronavirus. The current evidence, the Court reasoned, suggested that unvaccinated individuals were no more likely to spread the virus than those vaccinated and, therefore, people could not be denied access to public places, services and resources for being unvaccinated. However, this was no blanket order, and if infection rates increased and vaccines demonstrably reduced susceptibility to infections, the Government was within its rights to impose restrictions. The order underscores scientific reasoning and that the pandemic also continues to pose tough, science conundrums that generate new knowledge and challenge received wisdom. Last year, this time, India was besieged by the second pandemic and also woefully short of vaccines. The central policy then was to rationalise access to vaccines because demand outstripped supply. While availability was a key factor, it was also because scientific evidence showed vaccination stemmed progression to severe disease and the priority was to save lives.

Close to 75% of Indians have had at least one vaccine shot and a good proportion have hybrid immunity. Newer, highly transmissible variants and the West’s experience, of infections being rife despite triple-shots, have all depressed demand for boosters in India. While last year, before the second wave, vaccine hesitancy was ascribed to the low uptake, it is quite likely now that people are exercising their option of waiting for more kinds of the vaccine. The current attitude is foregrounded in the ground reality that daily infections are low despite a complete opening up of normal life. In the first year of the pandemic, when vaccines were in a nascent stage and the virus was raging, the scientific wisdom was that lock-downs and vaccination of two thirds of the population would end the pandemic — an idea that has not come to pass. Thus, it could very well be that newer kinds of vaccines (proven to curb transmission), may change the understanding of the best possible means to contain the blight. The suppression of individual liberty for the greater good is perhaps among the oldest and toughest questions that democracies grapple with; and beyond the orders, it is judicial reasoning that influences policy and future discourse when the facts on the ground change. The authorities must keep scientific evidence at the forefront when they take decisions that affect individual choice.

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Printable version | May 4, 2022 10:23:03 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/weighing-the-evidence/article65378653.ece