Head to Head: Should UCD introduce a Vaccine Mandate?

Image Credit: Flickr, DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II

Yes - Michael Bergin

Introducing vaccine mandates in college campuses are an essential step to moving safely out of this pandemic, and that is a simple fact. We have all collectively been put through what most students would happily call the most stressful, painful, and frustrating year of our lives, and if a vaccine mandate is the only way to guarantee a safe return to campus, there is no reason for universities such as UCD not to follow this course.

In the United States, vaccine mandates have been implemented in all the major Ivy League colleges, to huge success. Students in these Universities can take reassurance from the fact that at least 90% of their fellow students are immunised with safe and effective vaccines. They can also be confident that due to the efficacy of these vaccines, they will not have to worry about another disruptive shutdown of campus life for the foreseeable future. In Ireland, we have taken extreme precaution over the last few months to guarantee that any easing of Covid restrictions would be permanent, and so is it not imperative that we treat our young people with the same precaution? Should we not pursue every available avenue, especially due to the ease with which a vaccine mandate could be implemented, in order to protect our young people? 

A common argument in opposition to vaccine mandates is the constitutionality of implementing such measures in Ireland. In 2001, a landmark case, in which the parents of a new-born child refused a standard procedure known as the PKU test, a test which detects potentially harmful diseases, established that the parents of the child had every right to refuse this test.

 However, this does not mean that a vaccine mandate can be ruled out. A PKU test is an individual test, designed to detect imminent threats to the child, and the child alone. The same circumstances hardly apply to a contagious disease, in which the lives of others can be threatened by the obstinacy of the individual. In fact, in a 1996 case, the Supreme Court agreed with exactly this point, decreeing that “with regard to contagious diseases, the common good can justify some restrictions on individual rights”. Therefore, the legality of implementing a vaccine mandate is certainly not unconstitutional. Currently, 11 European countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have mandated vaccines for numerous diseases, so clearly there is no objection to such action at the EU level either.

Why then, should people refrain from taking vaccines? If it is only to assert their individual rights, then this is a dangerous and moronic display of entitlement, that reveals not just delusional self-importance, but also a vicious disregard for others. If they are more reasonably inclined to question the safety of the vaccination in a genuine manner, then they can rest assured that the standards any publicly-used drug must reach in the European Union far surpass virtually every other region on earth. The FDA’s emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine has long been a favourite talking point amongst vaccine-hesitant cohorts, though this was due to the urgent need for vaccines, and the need to bypass time-consuming paperwork, not at the expense of testing and safety measures. Not to mention that the FDA did recently grant full approval of Pfizer’s vaccine. Not to mention that the FDA are an American body, and we are not in America.

In Universities specifically, vaccination is already a requirement to go on placement to healthcare settings, so all nursing and medicine students already need to be vaccinated. Are we working under the presupposition that Arts students are necessarily less contagious than these people? Any trip to UCD’s Newman building will quickly dispel this notion.

In all seriousness, a lack of resolve when it comes to vaccination will be our undoing in this pandemic. In recent years, cases of measles and mumps, preventable diseases, have risen across Europe. This presents a real challenge for our leaders, and a warning that our progress against this virus is not irreversible unless we take every precaution to make it so. 

The current situation with regard to the disease is dynamic and fast-moving. In the past week, a new strain, known as the Mu variant, has emerged in South America, and again, we will have to examine how this new strain interacts with the vaccines currently on offer. Any time someone refuses a vaccine, they are helping this disease to proliferate. It is little wonder that deadly new variants arise typically in countries with little vaccination coverage, not due to public opposition to vaccines, but due to supply shortages. 

If we truly wish to make a full, safe and permanent return to campus, a vaccine mandate is the obvious choice for universities to make. Let’s hope UCD can lead by example on this.

Rebuttal to Yes - James Fitzgereald

When pointing out that Vaccine Mandates are already in place with great effect, the above argument lists a number of places with infamously bad vaccine hesitancy, such as Germany and the United States. To borrow a phrase, “The Ivy Leagues are an American body, and we are not in America”. As stated, I think a limitation on regular civil liberties can be justified in a small number of very extreme circumstances, and if that’s literally the only way to reach herd immunity in certain places, then I guess it must be done. Ireland, however, is not one of those places, and as outlined above, is actually a perfectly sensible society for the most part in recognising the importance of taking the vaccine.

As I am not a legal scholar, I shan’t comment too much on the constitutionality of a potential Vaccine Mandate, except to point out the obvious fact that a thing being constitutional does not make it a good idea, and it certainly does not make it sensible policy.

It is accepted that in the American college campus, there will be a small number of unvaccinated people still, but the average student can be guaranteed 90% minimum of their peers have gotten inoculated. Again, if we can guarantee the same numbers here, without a mandate from the state or school, why on earth would the mandate be a good idea?

There is also an obvious difference between a student training to enter the healthcare profession and a philosophy student whose going to leave college to work in a failing bookstore, which is proximity to sick and immunocompromised people. There are strict rules for many professions that must be adhered to, that are merely good manners for the rest of the world. Take hygiene: One should shower regularly, but it would be mad to suggest denial of education for people with B.O. If they work in a food related job, however, they may actually be punished by their employer for a lack of hygiene.

If we do see, which we haven't really yet, a growth in Vaccine Hesitancy in Ireland, we must redouble our efforts in education, in science communication, and in speaking to friends and family about the importance of taking the shots, long before we consider solving the delicate issue of deep-seated mistrusts with the iron hammer of a Vaccine Mandate.

No - James Fitzgereald

Vaccines, and vaccine mandates, can be contentious topics, and so with the 800 words I have to argue against a University-wide mandate I’m going to state a number of positions and assumptions outright. The best possible outcome of any public health policy in relation to vaccines is maximum vaccine uptake. Andrew Wakefield is a dangerous quack. There is no evidence that ivermectin is an effective treatment for Covid-19 in humans, and even if it were, you should get it from your physician, not a vet.

All that said, vaccine mandates are bad for a plethora of reasons.

First of all, they are illiberal. People living in a free society should be able to make healthcare choices for themselves. That a healthcare decision is dangerous or stupid is not a reason to have a state mandated reason to force one to happen. Of course, in immediate and extreme circumstances there is a good case to be made for having a small number of very specific regulations to save lives during an emergency. During the early days of the pandemic the shutting down of international travel, the closing of businesses, and basically the totality of the lockdown measures taken thus far are good (With the exception of the prohibitions of protests, which are outdoors and far too important to the functioning of a free society to prohibit.

I contend that a vaccine mandate in Universities does not fall into that category. The case for a vaccine mandate for indoor dining makes sense. There is pressure to take the vaccine, in that those who do not are unable to have food and drinks indoors, which is a pain for them, but access to a state funded service is not being denied. Voting, going out in public, collecting the dole, and posting mail are all also things I personally would rather I was doing only with other vaccinated people, but I shan’t call on a state mandate to force them to get the jab.

While cases remain high and new variants are on the rise, It may seem odd to some to act as if we aren’t still in the middle of a sudden emergency, but consider this: Ireland has one of the highest uptakes of Covid-19 vaccines in the world, and more generally has a healthy acceptance of the efficacy of vaccination programmes. As of last week, over 71% of the population were fully vaccinated, with a significant number of people still awaiting their doses. The World Health Organisation (WHO) does not yet know what percentage of a population needs to be inoculated to achieve herd immunity, but whatever number it turns out to be, Ireland will surely achieve it. If Ireland can achieve herd immunity through well informed people making sound medical decisions without the heavy hand of the state, then why sacrifice civil liberties to achieve the same goal?

Another, possibly stronger, case against vaccine mandates is that they can fuel vaccine hesitancy.

Because of the abundance of ridiculous graffiti, stickers, and social media posts about the “scamdemic” trying to enforce “medical apartheid” by asking that one does not catch and spread a deadly virus, it can seem as if there is a large and dangerous cohort threatening to undo the work of our medical and scientific communitees. The size and rowdiness of these peoples’ public demonstrations doesn’t help with this perception, either. That said, the performance of figures like UCD’s very own Dolores Cahill in the recent Dublin Bay South by-election show that they are, in fact, a fringe group with rightly marginal and marginalised beliefs. Among students coming to campus, there is almost no one who doesn’t see Cahill and figures like her as a joke.

Currently, vaccine hesitancy aligns one by default with the crackpots and the crazies. Why on earth should health policy risk giving them a martyr, a victim of the alleged injustices faced by the unvaccinated? Media narratives matter, and at the moment, despite all the whinging, the only thing an unvaccinated person can’t do is sit inside for their meal out or go on holiday. These are positively karenesque complaints, and most people, seeing the comparisons to racially segregated societies or dystopian sci fi novels, laugh. Give them a student kicked out of college for being “too skeptical” or “asking questions”, and people will pause and think. Nothing about the vaccine will have changed, but the public perception of the unequivocal goodness of the vaccine rollout will take a hit.

Again, the public are currently almost certainly on track to reach herd immunity without coercion. If we, as a society, can band together, think rationally about science and evidence, be free to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions, and still make the right decision for ourselves and our fellow man free from state coercion, then we should do so, and celebrate it. Lets not fuel the fire of stupidity by burning our liberties.

Rebuttal to No - Michael Bergin: 

With regard to my colleague’s views on the necessity of a vaccine mandate for third-level institutions, I would have to disagree roundly on a number of points.To begin with, my colleague asserts that vaccine mandates necessarily fuel vaccine hesitancy.This is not fact. This is conjecture. I accept that a vaccine mandate is unlikely to convince the most hardened sceptics, but as a general rule, no vaccination programme, no matter how stringent, will reach 100 percent coverage. It is simply about immunising the absolute maximum number of people, in a densely populated area such as a college campus.In the words of my colleague, there are very few students coming to college who don’t see vaccine sceptics like Dolores Cahill as a joke, and so the threat of vaccine hesitancy developing amongst this grouping is therefore minimal.

My colleague also contends that a vaccine mandate in restaurants makes sense, yet finds a vaccine mandate in universities is nonsensical. Vaccination is currently required to sit in socially distanced fashion from other diners in any restaurant, regardless of how small the numbers in the restaurant are, and how short the diners stay for. How then, can the absence of a vaccine mandate be justified for up to 500 students sitting in a single lecture hall, many of whom have travelled from abroad, for a whole hour? Surely, the greater risk to public health is posed by universities teeming with activity, as opposed to quiet local restaurants.

My colleague finishes with a rousing call not to “fuel the fire of stupidity by burning our liberties”. I must say, I’m jealous I didn’t come up with that one, however, I would ask my colleague to consider how far he thinks his liberties extend. Yes, he is at liberty to take care of his own health however he sees fit, but is he at liberty to endanger others? In his list of entitlements and rights, no doubt learned by heart, where is his right to harm? Where is his right to undermine public health?

We must not rest on our laurels. Nothing would be a surer guarantee of catastrophe.