The Meghalaya High Court has held that forceful or mandatory vaccination violates the fundamental right to livelihood.
The court made the observations in a suo moto public interest litigation filed after it took note that the state had mandated shopkeepers, vendors and taxi drivers to get themselves vaccinated against Covid-19 before resuming their business.
“Vaccination by force or being made mandatory by adopting coercive methods, vitiates the very fundamental purpose of the welfare attached to it,” read the judgement that was passed on Wednesday. “It impinges on the fundamental right(s) as such, especially when it affects the right to means of livelihood which makes it possible for a person to live.”
The bench cited several court orders to highlight that vaccination by force has been discouraged. The bench’s order also highlighted matters concerning bodily autonomy.
“Whether to subject oneself to an intrusion of his/her body, even if of minor intensity, e.g., through a needle, concerns issues of personal and bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, similar to abortion rights or non-sterilization rights or even sex reassignment surgeries, irrespective of what consequences the individual might be inviting,” it noted.
“Around one hundred and seven (107) years ago, in Schloendroff v Society of New York Hospitals, NY Justice Cardozo ruled that ‘every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with their body’,” the judgement read. “Thus, by use of force or through deception if an unwilling capable adult is made to have the ‘flu vaccine would be considered both a crime and tort or civil’ wrong, as was ruled in Airedale NHS Trust v Bland reported around thirty years (30) ago.”— Meghalaya High Court
After the court order, the state principal secretary said the existing orders on vaccine compliance will be modified.
Shops, commercial vehicles to display vaccine status of employees
The authorities in Meghalaya are struggling with vaccine hesitancy among its residents.
In its order, the bench of Chief Justice Biswanath Somadder and Justice HS Thangkhiew said vaccination was the need of the hour and absolutely necessary to tide over the pandemic. The court also warned of stern action against anyone involved in spreading misinformation on the vaccination drive.
“The burden lies on the State to disseminate and sensitize the citizens of the entire exercise of vaccination with its pros and cons and facilitate informed decision making particularly in a situation where the beneficiaries are skeptical, susceptible and belonging to vulnerable/marginalised section of the society, some of whom are also gullible members of the indigenous communities who are constantly being fed with deliberate misinformation regarding the efficacy of vaccination by some persons/organisations with oblique motives.”— Meghalaya High Court
However, the court asked all shops, businesses and commercial vehicles in the state to display the Covid-19 vaccination status of their employees at a “conspicuous place” so that people can make an informed decision before using their services.
The court said the authorities can order “closure/stoppage of plying” for those who flout these guidelines. The bench will hear the matter again on June 30.
As Meghalaya struggled to vaccinate even its healthcare workers, the state health department commissioned the Indian Institute of Public Health in Shillong to conduct a study. The preliminary findings, accessed by Scroll.in, revealed that “messages on social media” was one of the major drivers of hesitancy.
Vaccine hesitancy – loosely defined as the phenomenon of people refusing to get inoculated despite the presence of a safe and effective vaccine – is complex and driven by several factors. The extraordinary circumstances and the crunched timelines under which the Covid-19 vaccines were developed makes it even more complicated. Thus, experts believe it is only natural for people to be apprehensive.
Apart from these understandable fears common across the country, Meghalaya seem to be contending with fringe Christian groups’ anti-vaccination propaganda too. Fringe Christian groups have been linking the vaccine with an evil force. “There is this idea among certain fringe groups that the vaccine is also part of some sort of controlling mechanism,” said Reverend Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh of the Khasi-Jaintia Presbyterian Church in Meghalaya.
Some said it was a “mix of scientific and religious” misinformation that was fuelling vaccine hesitancy in Meghalaya’s Khasi and Jaintia hills.
Residents say anti-vaccine WhatsApp messages citing American right-wing conspiracy theories have been doing the rounds in the state since last year. The United States has a long history of anti-vaccination movements, many of which are closely linked to evangelical groups. Such groups have come in the way of the country’s Covid-19 inoculation drive too. As a result, shots are going unused in many parts of the US.