Discrimination and Vaccination

Lots of people are suddenly talking about “discrimination,” even though this word is not used readily in Russia, just like the closely-related concept of “minority rights.” Many still find it somehow unpatriotic to protect and defend minority rights and combat discrimination. But the situation has not yet reached open calls for discrimination, at least not outside of radical xenophobic groups.

There are many legal definitions of “discrimination, but the one that seems acceptable to almost everyone is: “unequal and unfair treatment.” Discrimination is one of the human rights violations reflected in all international documents on this topic, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the European Convention on Human Rights. In Russia, however, the concept of “discrimination” has unfortunately not been given an official legal definition, even though the relevant UN agencies – the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – have repeatedly called on Moscow to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that includes a specific definition of the problem. Nevertheless, it is clear that discrimination is bad – and even unacceptable – under the norms of Russian and international law. So it was very strange to hear the presidential press secretary’s speak about the “imminent arrival of discrimination” in relation to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

Even more alarming was the direct call “to institute discrimination at the state level” quoted in the media, which cited the head doctor at a hospital in Ekaterinburg. This doctor was clearly referring to the need to temporarily limit the activities of people who refuse the vaccine for no objective reason, but his choice of words was unfortunate. Therefore, the presence of an “objectively justifiable goal that can be achieved through acceptable and necessary means” cannot be deemed a circumstance where differences in treatment can be viewed as discrimination.

The fight against the pandemic has often required the introduction of quarantine and other measures (masks, vaccinations, and so forth), and this is exactly a case where the ends justify the means. We can, of course, discuss which specific methods are sensible and permissible. Some people resent the requirement to bring a vaccination card to work (as far as I understand, an exception is made for people with medical contraindications to vaccination), while others fear the risk of being banned from travel or entertainment events.

The proposal to provide routine medical care only to vaccinated people is probably the most controversial and radical proposal; after all people seek medical care to extend and improve their lives, so they cannot be denied care. On the other hand, anyone who has even tried to schedule elective (say, orthopedic) surgery for their child knows that a complete vaccine certificate has always been required for the child and the parent, if the parent will also be staying in the hospital, and that without it the hospital would simply turn them away, even without an outbreak of measles or diphtheria. The epidemiological situation, when people are dying by the hundreds every day, naturally lends weight to arguments about the justifiability of vaccine requirements, so it is downright strange to speak about discrimination in this context.

But the vaccination problem is still connected with discrimination, just in an entirely different way, since the vaccine and, accordingly, protection from a disease that is fatal for many, is not available to all. In many countries, millions of people who want to get vaccinated are not yet able to. In some cases, people are divided by age – and this is a sensible and acceptable method (save as many people at greatest risk of death from the virus, i.e., the elderly).

Often, however, the privilege of protection from a deadly illness is primarily available to people for non-medical reasons, for example, citizenship. In fact, people must show their passports almost everywhere to get a shot. One of the countries with the highest vaccination rates is Malta, which is second only to Iceland in Europe. However, refugees, who make up almost 20 percent of the island’s population, have yet to be vaccinated.

Separating a country’s residents into “us” and “them” is obviously not a justifiable or advisable approach to fighting the epidemic; on the contrary, cramped quarters and the lack of personal hygiene products and personal protective equipment in refugee camps and the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in European countries significantly aggravates the risk that the infection will spread to places where it will be bad for everyone, but particularly for those who are barely getting by as it is. The sensible and necessary approach would be to give people in risk groups priority, but instead, these people are being vaccinated last. People who have no documents, citizenship, or residence permits are often not vaccinated at all. Human rights organizations in London have long pushed for permission to not require documents at vaccination sites, and in the end, a bus appeared that drives around poor immigrant neighborhoods and provides vaccines to people no questions asked.

In Russia, migrants who are in the country legally and work in the service sector, i.e., are in constant contact with other people, cannot get vaccinated even though many of them very much want to. They also do not have the opportunity to choose the most effective vaccine, even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which are not yet experiencing a shortage of the Sputnik V vaccine. These people want to get vaccinated to protect their own and others’ lives and not so they can go to entertainment events or take trips abroad, but they are excluded without any “objectively justifiable goal.” As long as the ability to get vaccinated depends not just on obvious preferences for certain professions (medical workers, transportation workers), ages, or risk groups, but also on the privileges of citizenship, discrimination will remain a real problem.

Stephania Kulaeva
First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda

Photo by Ute Weinmann