SOUTH Africa’s teens can change South Africa’s Covid-19 destiny by getting vaccinated whether their parents like it or not.
Submitting to the jab is one act of teenage rebellion – although we’d prefer to classify it as an admirable act of active citizenry - that could accelerate a return to normal life.
Many teenagers may be unaware that they do not legally need their parents’ permission to get their single dose of Pfizer, their ticket to a vaccine passport. But they can and in doing so they can help end a dreary life of Zoom calls, isolation, and disrupted education.
Mtho Maphumulo, the Senior Associate at law firm Adams & Adams in an article for News24, pointed out that a child aged 12 and above could consent to medical treatment under the Children's Act.
They are also empowered, he said, by other laws too. For example, a minor girl (of any age) may terminate a pregnancy without anyone else's consent in terms of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. Under South African law, a minor child may undergo an HIV test with no consent required other than their own.
Lucy Jamieson of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town told the M&G that while parents should assist their children to make good and informed decisions about their health the decision for their children to be vaccinated is not theirs to make.
“… For children over the age of 12 it is their choice and parents also have a duty to respect the child’s decision,” she said.
But what happens if a child wants the jab and a parent does not? The consensus among legal experts who have written on the subject is that the best interests of the child must prevail.
It is difficult to see how allowing a child to exercise their right to accept a Covid-19 vaccine is not in their interests.
In the 3rd wave, some 20% of all cases were in the 12-17 age group and that was before the 4th wave which is breaking around us, the Omicron variant and concern being voiced by medical practitioners over the number of young people not yet vaccinated who are testing positive and presenting with more serious symptoms.
While we know that the young are at a lower risk of becoming seriously ill, this is not the main reason for offering vaccines to this group, in our view.
There is an opportunity to significantly boost our vaccinated population as 12 to 17s comprise a full 11% of South Africans, or some 6.5m people.
This could have a significant impact on the spread of the virus especially as schools re-open in the new year and it will also offer some additional protection to those adults who are able to be vaccinated but who are foolish enough to resist.
Encouragingly, nearly 600,000 12-17 year-olds had already been vaccinated by early December, but there are still plenty more to go and we should be doing everything in our power to help them.
But we are confronted with some practicalities which could potentially render toothless the rights our children enjoy under the law.
One is logistical. How do we get children to vaccination centers if they are facing resistance from parents? The other is administrative. Currently one needs an ID document to go through the vaccination process and many teens may not have an identity document in their possession if they have one at all.
The way to solve this is to bring vaccination capabilities into every school which will provide a safe environment for our children to exercise their rights and to do so in an informed manner and with the counsel of adults who also care about their best interests.
Schools also have access to copies of identity documents or at least can credibly provide confirmation of identity which will allow the vaccination to be officially captured and linked to the child.
Questions like this are to be scrutinized in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg where civil society body Section27 has applied to be a friend of the court in a case brought by the African Christian Democratic Party to stop the state from vaccinating children against Covid-19.
Section 27 executive director, Umunyana Rugege, argues in her court papers that Covid-19 has massively disrupted education already, particularly in poorer and rural schools where overcrowding is common and is compounding stress and anxiety in our children.
But we cannot wait for the court to settle these questions. Time is not on our side as cases soar with the new variant.
While opponents of vaccinating children cite the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) in support of their arguments, this is all the more an argument for the vaccination to be done with parental support.
Under these circumstances, these rare complications can be properly monitored and treated, as happens routinely elsewhere. These rare outlier scenarios are no reason to disempower our children.
No, we can only hope South Africa’s teens understand the powerful weapon that they have to make decisions about their own bodies and their own treatment. In this, they are arguably freer than many of their peers elsewhere in the world.
And, as much as it pains us to say this, there are millions of parents who are not acting in the best interests of their children, even if they think that they are.
It, therefore, falls to all of us who believe in the scientific evidence that the Covid-19 vaccines work to slow transmission and to prevent serious illness and death to act. We must help our children to do what is right for themselves – and also best for us, their elders who should know better than to be standing in their way.
For more information, visit our website at www.siyabuya.org.za