COVID Vaccination Can’t Be Mandatory – But You Probably Missed the Catch

New Delhi: On May 2, the Supreme Court of India struck down all vaccine mandates in the country and said that COVID-19 vaccination in the country would have to be voluntary.

COVID-19 vaccination in India has always been voluntary, at least according to Union government policy. This said, four state governments – Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – had introduced mandates of sorts.

In Delhi, government employees had to be fully vaccinated or they wouldn’t be allowed to work (and their absence would count against their leave quota). In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, access to public spaces was subject to vaccination. In Madhya Pradesh, an individual could buy food grains at fair price shops only if they were fully vaccinated.

In other states also, entry to many closed spaces like markets and theatres was restricted to vaccinated individuals. But the court struck down all these mandates to uphold Article 21 of the Constitution – ‘protection of life and liberty’. However, the court clarified that this decision wasn’t absolute:

“If there is a likelihood of [unvaccinated] individuals spreading the infection to other people or contributing to mutation of the virus or burdening of the public health infrastructure, thereby affecting communitarian health at large, protection of which is undoubtedly a legitimate state aim of paramount significance in this collective battle against the pandemic, the government can regulate such public health concerns by imposing certain limitations on individual rights that are reasonable and proportionate to the object sought to be fulfilled.”

That is, the court’s mandate strike-down isn’t a free pass for anti-vaxxers. If new variants of the novel coronavirus emerge in future that are even more transmissible, and if it becomes crucial that everyone is vaccinated, then states will be duty-bound to protect the larger cause of public health.

In that case, the court allowed governments a free hand to impose “reasonable limitations,” although it didn’t specify them. Individual governments are presumably at liberty to interpret these limitations as they see fit, including to impose vaccine mandates.