South Africa: Covid-19 - Unions Should Push Harder for Teachers to Get Vaccinated

Schools reopened on Monday with over 430,000 teachers vaccinated against Covid-19. This is good news. But many tens of thousands of teachers remain unvaccinated. Both the education department and unions should be doing more to get hesitant teachers vaccinated. Unfortunately, prevarication and mixed messages are not helping.

Teachers who choose not to get vaccinated put themselves at risk of dying or becoming extremely ill from Covid. They also put their vaccinated colleagues at risk, because although the vaccines are very good, they are not 100% effective. Unvaccinated teachers risk infecting learners who could then infect their family and friends. The argument that everyone in a workplace has the right to choose whether or not to get a Covid-19 vaccine would have some merit if we didn't breathe in each other's germs. But we do.

On Friday the education department issued a circular on what to do about teachers who refuse to get vaccinated. To describe it as confusing is an understatement. From its title to its last sentence seven pages later, it is impenetrable, mixed messaging, apparently the consequence of failed negotiations with the teaching unions.

On Saturday NAPTOSA, a teaching union that is usually sensible and reasonable, published its views on the department circular. Unfortunately the NAPTOSA statement is also confused.

NAPTOSA argues that teachers should not have to submit a medical report explaining why they have not been vaccinated, claiming this would be a violation of their privacy and constitutional rights. NAPTOSA even appears to be okay with teachers refusing to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons, including "don't believe in vaccination" and "don't trust the science or government".

This is irrational and NAPTOSA is not acting in the interests of its members by taking this approach. Vaccination is an excellent example of the adage that "an injury to one is an injury to all". By allowing a minority of their members to prevaricate over the need for vaccination, unions are failing to adhere to this most famous adage of labour.

To its credit, SADTU, the largest teaching union, has stated: "A responsible education worker takes the jab. Let's vaccinate to save lives." This is the kind of unequivocal messaging that is needed.

Much is made of people who for medical reasons cannot get vaccinated. But there are currently no medical conditions that are contraindicated for Covid-19 vaccines. There may be some extremely rare conditions for which there is a lack of safety data. At most a handful of the 600,000 or so teachers could provide a valid medical excuse for delaying vaccination.

In a work environment, people have the right to know which of their colleagues are putting them at risk. Sure, some medical conditions are a confidential matter, but people also have to know if they are at unnecessary risk of a contagious potentially fatal infection.

Unvaccinated teachers present a serious risk to themselves and their colleagues. They need to be urged to get vaccinated, not indulged.

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