Already at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, in April, Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit wrote that due to the pandemic, constitutional rights such as the right to privacy, property, freedom of occupation and freedom of movement were struck dumb in the face of drastic measures that would be inconceivable during normal times. And indeed, the cabinet, the Knesset and even the High Court of Justice have approved a range of far-reaching tools, from Shin Bet security service cellphone tracking to restrictions on movement and on demonstrations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest proposal – to ram through legislation allowing the state to give local governments the names of residents who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 – is a new, dangerous phase in the ongoing effort to erode privacy rights as part of the battle against the virus. After the cellphone tracking and the need to present one’s vaccination certificate in public places, now information about a person’s decision whether to be vaccinated or not would be available to the local government, which could use this in various ways, from exerting pressure on “disobedient” residents to imposing restrictions on them and their families.
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The point of departure must always be that a person’s medical information, including any treatments given or refused, is private. This of course includes a person’s decision not to be vaccinated. The Patients’ Rights Law promises full patient autonomy over decisions and over the disclosure of medical information. The right to privacy is one of the few constitutional rights that is specified explicitly in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, and which has earned an entire law of its own – the Privacy Protection Law.
The battle against the coronavirus is of utmost importance. There is also great importance in trying to persuade as many people as possible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, thereby reduce the risk to themselves, their families and to the entire population. Nevertheless, there is no justification for such a severe violation of the right to privacy. In the era of social media and of information online that can be collected about anyone, this right is one of the most fundamental rights that makes it possible to live a normal life, without invasion of private space.
Netanyahu continues to guide governmental decision-making toward solutions that undermine fundamental individual rights and enhance the power of the government. If it doesn’t succeed, he can always blame the attorney general, the courts or Benny Gantz. The government must direct its efforts toward persuading people of the benefits of vaccination – from both an ethical and a utilitarian perspective – instead of issuing implicit or explicit threats to shame those who refuse the vaccine.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.