Students must have COVID-19 vaccination passports

University students in Tunisia will not be allowed to enter higher education institutions unless they have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research said in a statement on 3 December 2021 that a vaccination passport is compulsory for entry to all university facilities’ campuses starting on 22 December 2021.

This decision was made after an announcement that the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus was detected in a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo on 1 December 2021.

Tunisia is the fourth among the 10 Arab North African states to have made COVID-19 vaccination compulsory for faculty members, students, workers and visitors, following Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.

Egypt has allowed unvaccinated students to enter the university campus if they can present a weekly negative PCR test for COVID-19 but will prevent them from writing exams at the end of the current academic year’s first semester.

By 6 December 2021, 718,443 infections and 25,401 COVID-19-related deaths have been recorded in Tunisia. The country now has the second-highest number of recorded COVID-19-related deaths in Africa, after South Africa.

Approximately 46% of Tunisians have been vaccinated. The country has a population of about 12 million people.

Unions have not yet responded

Sami Hammami, professor of economics at the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News that this is a courageous decision. “It anticipates the effects of the new wave of COVID-19, especially as the Omicron variant is making an impact in Europe,” he said.

“Students and teachers who have not completed vaccination are thus obliged to do so before 22 December. The return of the students after the winter holidays will be marked by this decision,” Hammami added.

However, student and teacher unions have not yet reacted to the decision.

Professor Zied Ben Amor, assistant general coordinator and official spokesperson for the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers (IJABA, meaning ‘answer’ in Arabic), told University World News that scientific objectivity keeps the organisation from airing any views.

“[IJABA] prefers to leave it to the national scientific advisory committee that has the necessary qualifications and expertise in the field, as well as comprehensive data that enables them to manage the situation and to take proper decisions based on the evolution of the situation on the ground,” he said.

Dr Birgit Schreiber, an associate member of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at the membership organisation Universities South Africa, said mandatory vaccination for institutions of higher learning is sensible because it protects the public and reduces all known risks, as well as undermines mutations of the coronavirus.

“The vulnerable who have compromised health status, and those who cannot reach medical care, require our protection and we protect them by vaccinating the public,” Schreiber said.

“It’s the same for measles, mumps, and chickenpox: we reduce their spread and impact by mandatory vaccinations,” she added. “To get our schools, universities and economies going, broad vaccination is necessary. It should be mandatory for public spaces, and universities are part of public life.”

Towards a safe university community

On the flip side, several Tunisian students have joined the ‘No to compulsory vaccination campaign’. They say that mandating COVID-19 vaccines is a step away from human rights infringements and a decision that violates the national constitution.

Besides focusing on increasing vaccination uptake, and reducing the risk and extent of COVID-19 outbreaks at universities, each institution should continue to apply asymptomatic testing programmes where possible, and be observant of the number of cases in the local community, according to a non-peer-reviewed study of the impact of vaccination and asymptomatic testing uptake on coronavirus transmission in several UK universities.

The study, posted on 24 November 2021, indicates that this “could help universities set policies to protect their students and wider university community while minimising any disruption to education”.