Friday 30 July 2021

Where do your rights end, and my rights begin?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

In the “olden days” when you could still smoke at your desk at the workplace, I found myself having to share an office with a chain smoker. I’ve never smoked in my life, so I immediately objected to him filling the room with thick smoke – why should I have to inhale second-hand smoke all day long when I had never indulged in this filthy habit myself? My colleague gradually started to oblige by going elsewhere to smoke, but my superior at the time (another heavy smoker) thought I was being unreasonable for demanding that the shared office remain smoke-free. Those were different times, of course, although when I calculated how long it’s been, it was a mere 25 years ago.

Today, we are all fully aware of the hazards of passive smoking. Yet, in 2004 when the first smoking ban was imposed on indoor public places, there was such an outcry by smokers (and the GRTU) that the Government at the time relented to allow designated, separate, areas for smokers to be set up which had to be ventilated. One whiff from that smoking room often felt like you had smoked a pack of cigarettes yourself. When the door opened the smoke was so dense you could barely recognise the smokers inside…I seriously worried about the state of their lungs, but hey, to each his own.

For non-smokers, however, it was a blessing. No more puffs of smoke in your face during dinner or while having a drink, and the prospect of going home with your clothes and hair reeking of tobacco was a distant memory. Smokers, understandably, felt ostracised as they huddled together outside for a smoke. I remember occasions at restaurants when half the table would get up to go outside for a cigarette, with everyone grumbling at how unfair the new law was on them.

In 2013, smokers were at the receiving end of another blow: it became illegal to smoke anywhere in enclosed public spaces, even in designated smoking rooms. Now the sight of office workers gathering outdoors rain or shine for a quick cigarette break soon became a familiar sight. To this day, whenever I see them, I cannot help but recall with a wry smile my own small battle to have a smoke-free working environment. Despite the grumbling and indignant objections, in the end, everyone got used to it.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

At the moment in most countries, there is an ongoing tug of war between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Obviously, Malta is no different, although the percentage of anti-vaxxers here is still comparatively low. However, the most urgent debate at the moment concerns TCNs (third country nationals) who live and work here and whether the health authorities are within their legal powers to demand that a person be vaccinated if they want their work permit renewed. An official communication from the Ministry of health clearly states that, “Applicants who are renewing their work permit need to show proof that the vaccination schedule for Covid-19 has been completed in Malta. Applicant is to attach a copy of the Covid-19 Vaccination Certificate with their work permit application form.”

This issue came to my attention because of vociferous claims of discrimination by a segment of foreign nationals who will be directly impacted by this, namely the large Serbian community in Malta. Suffice to say there are 27.4k members in the Serbian-Maltese info FB group alone. From the brief contact I have had with people of this nationality I have gathered that, generally speaking, many are not in favour of the vaccine. This is not surprising since in Serbia in May of this year they were actually offering people €25 each to get vaccinated. In April 2021, the owner of a private company in Serbia not only promised a reward of €250 for vaccinated employees but also denied an Easter salary bonus to employees who refuse to be vaccinated. In fact, Serbia is the only country which had a higher supply than demand for vaccines. It even ended up donating tens of thousands of unused vaccines to neighbouring countries in the Western Balkans.

A study among a representative sample of Serbian adults in May 2021 concluded that, “…high vaccine hesitancy is motivated by the belief in the vaccine conspiracy theories, through its effect on reduced trust in medical science and institutions, and low objective vaccine knowledge.” (Links between conspiracy beliefs, vaccine knowledge, and trust: Anti-vaccine behavior of Serbian adults).

I hasten to add that this is not to single out this particular community because these are the same reasons which one finds even among most anti-vaxxers of any nationality, including Maltese.

Do people have the right to refuse the vaccine? Yes, obviously they do. But do countries, airlines and private companies have the right to impose certain conditions when public health is at stake? With the number of active cases having reached over 1200 at the time of writing, I think the answer to that must be yes.

Malta’s move is not unprecedented either. Granted they are not in the EU, but the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands have done something similar when it comes to granting work permits to TCNs especially in the service industry. When the decision was challenged, the Human Rights Commission on the Cayman Islands concluded that, “Human rights is a balancing act and, in balancing the rights of individuals, Government has a responsibility to balance all rights. Section 16 of the Bill of Rights (non-discrimination) allows for discrimination in limited circumstances, where the discrimination “has an objective and reasonable justification and is reasonably proportionate to its aim in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.

For those in the hospitality sector, the issue becomes even more of a dilemma. The Home Affairs Minister of the island of Anguilla (a British overseas territory in the Caribbean) was recently quoted as saying, “…we have been getting much feedback from the hospitality sector regarding the fact that incoming visitors who are fully vaccinated are beginning to inquire whether the workers who are rendering them service are themselves vaccinated. This is an issue that we now find ourselves grappling with.”

As with all human rights, one has to always ask where do one’s fundamental rights start and where do they end, especially when they start encroaching on the rights of others? There are those who are arguing that Malta’s decision is in contravention of EU laws, but when everyone was frantically shutting their borders last year even to fellow EU nationals, and completely discarding the concept of freedom of movement, it seems everyone considered it acceptable because of the unprecedented emergency public health situation. How is this year, with the new Delta variant spreading so rapidly, any different? Meanwhile, Italy, France and Greece have already made it mandatory for health care workers to be vaccinated – so should these workers be claiming they are being discriminated against as well?

Similar to the right of someone to be a smoker, the right to remain unvaccinated is a personal choice. But such choices also carry consequences. When the smoke you are exhaling in my face is putting my health in jeopardy then yes, I do have a right to protest and ask you to take it outside and the law now upholds this right. With the same reasoning, when the decision not to take the vaccine is jeopardising public health (a fact which we now know is undeniable), then yes, an employer and the state do have the right to tell you that your request for a work permit to be renewed, can be denied.

After all, the same work permit also requires the applicant to get clearance from a medical doctor that they do not have tuberculosis, scabies, food and water borne illnesses (gastroenteritis) and vaccine preventable diseases such as chickenpox and measles. All healthcare professionals must show proof of full course of Hepatitis B vaccination and all applicants working in the food industry must show proof of full course of Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccination. What are these other mandatory requirements for, if not to protect public health?

In my view, and in the current volatile situation, asking for proof of vaccination against Covid-19 is not an unreasonable request to make. Where I agree with the Serbian community is that it should not just be TCNs who have to be vaccinated, especially for certain jobs. Although it is a hot issue, and the MUT has come out forcefully against it, I believe even teachers and anyone in contact with children should also be required to take the jab if we are serious about preventing another outbreak in schools and forcing everyone back online.

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