The 26-member vice-chancellors body, Universities South Africa (USAf), has emphatically declared that vaccination is a must, saying that the best scientific evidence has found fully-vaccinated individuals are better protected against Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that cause COVID-19) infections, in particular against severe illness, hospitalisation and death.
University World News writes that USAf has urged university leaders to advise their governing councils that vaccinations are the most effective way to maximise the safety of students and staff.
The USAf statement follows developments at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where earlier this month, the secretary-general of the Student Representative Council, Nhlonipho Nxumalo, criticised the university executive’s plan to make vaccinations mandatory on campus. Nxumalo said the student body was not opposed to vaccinations, but rejected the proposal that staff and students who chose not to be vaccinated would be required to test weekly at their own cost, citing the constitutional right of freedom of choice.
Wits said staff and students, including applicants for study or employment, as well as visitors and service providers, must be vaccinated before being allowed to enter the campus.
Professor Lynn Morris, the deputy vice-chancellor: research and innovation at Wits, said the vaccination policy did not infringe on the constitutional rights of the university community, as it accommodates those who choose not to be vaccinated.
But to ensure that unvaccinated people were not infectious, they would have to undergo weekly tests before accessing campuses. “Wits is looking into various options to cover the costs of these weekly tests for at least the first few months, or providing transport to nearby testing sites that do free tests,” said Morris, a leading virologist and immunologist.
“I must emphasise that Wits makes decisions based on the best scientific evidence, and, right now, getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible is in the best interests. Vaccinations in South Africa are free, and we are encouraging all eligible persons to get vaccinated.”
Nxumalo said while nearby hospitals offered free testing, students receive R1,500 a month from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme would not be able to afford transportation costs.
“Public hospitals are always full. So we are rejecting that (to test free at hospitals). According to Section 12 of the Constitution, we are allowed to make our own decisions about our bodies, and are allowed freedom of choice,” she said.
Wits students and staff who choose not to be vaccinated on constitutional grounds will be required to: undergo daily health screenings being being allowed entry on to campus; to wear a mask; and to undergo weekly testing. Staff who are not vaccinated would not be allowed into common areas.
What are institutions doing?
University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the executive team supported a policy requiring mandatory vaccinations for staff and students.
This was followed by a statement from university council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama: “Council, having debated the issue and taking into consideration a range of views on the matter, and having applied its collective mind, resolved to approve, on an in-principle basis, a proposal requiring that from 1 January 2022, all staff (as a condition of being able to perform their duties) and students (as a condition of registration) provide proof of having been vaccinated against COVID-19.”
The Rhodes University council also approved a senate recommendation for mandatory COVID vaccinations, meaning staff and students will need to produce proof of vaccination to access the campus from next year.
Gasant Abarder, the manager of media, marketing and communications at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), said UWC’s vaccination programme was voluntary.
In a statement, Normah Zondo, the executive director of corporate relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the institution expects staff and students to get vaccinated voluntarily, based on their knowledge of the importance of mitigating the spread of the deadly virus.
Herman Esterhuizen, media liaison manager at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said: “Central to the discussion is balancing health priorities, also considering the moral and legal rights of individuals. UJ’s management has concluded that mandating vaccinations was a vital aspect to consider for the university requirements to protect staff, students, visitors and other possible stakeholders.”
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