‘Sense of mistrust’: vaccination and Covid Safe Ticket divide society, Unia says

‘Sense of mistrust’: vaccination and Covid Safe Ticket divide society, Unia says
Credit: Belga

The way Belgium’s vaccination strategy is handled and the expanded use of the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) increase a sense of mistrust among the population, a report by national human rights institution Unia shows.

A year after its first report analysing the impact of the health crisis on human rights, Unia published a follow-up report monitoring human rights during the pandemic, based on reports from citizens and continuous monitoring against anti-discrimination legislation.

“The measures taken and the way in which they are communicated continue to create a feeling of discrimination and injustice among the population, further polarising society,” stressed Els Keytsman, director of Unia, in a press release.

Unia received 2,000 Covid-related reports from citizens between 20 August 2020 and 20 August 2021, which provide a picture of what is going on in society, what worries or concerns the population, and what are potentially problematic situations, the organisation says.

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The report shows that the number of Covid-19 reports increased gradually as the vaccination strategy took shape, with a strong rise in June 2021 as the EU Digital Covid Certificate took shape, reaching a peak in August 2021, when the Belgian CST was introduced.

Of the 2,000 reports, Unia received just over 1,000 on the vaccination strategy and vaccines, most of them criticising the divide of society by a person’s vaccination status: those who are not vaccinated risk being more restricted in their access to employment, goods and services, activities and social contacts.

“The CST has repeatedly been advocated as an instrument to increase vaccination coverage. If this was the aim, a legal obligation for certain professional sectors for example, would have been preferable,” said Keytsman.

“The authorities would have been more coherent if they had consistently taken on this responsibility,” she said, adding that Unia is also aware of the risks of compulsory vaccination, which must always be proportionate, limited to what is strictly necessary and, above all, inclusive.

Additionally, the organisation received a lot of questions about (lack of) vaccination and access to employment and internships.

‘Can’t stigmatise populations’

While it is not uncommon to make vaccination compulsory by law (as is the case for hepatitis B and tetanus) in sectors where people are more exposed to a virus, employers cannot impose the vaccine if the law does not provide for it, Unia stressed.

“[Vaccination] must not be imposed without accompanying measures, so as not to exclude or stigmatise populations that are already vulnerable or marginalised in an occupational context,” said Keytsman.

The obligation should also be limited to the sectors considered to be most at risk, “to avoid extending it to other professions without any real justification,” she added.

On top of that, they cannot automatically fire employees for not being vaccinated or simply refuse job applicants who have not been vaccinated. Those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are entitled to reasonable accommodation and cannot be removed from work.

Even though the observations of Unia’s report end in August 2021, it “cannot ignore what happened next,” the organisation said.

The Covid Safe Ticket (CST), initially intended for travel and mass events, expanded in time and space at the end of the summer with no clear indication of where it would end.

“This led to a huge increase in reports to Unia: between 21 August and 15 October, we registered 1,255 reports (almost half of all reports),” it said.

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