Protesters rallying against “vaccine passports” have cast a shadow over Canada’s election campaign trail this year. The jeers and shouts from demonstrators have been following Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at most campaign stops over his unwavering support for the certificates and vaccination against COVID-19 — and they are getting more aggressive.
Liberals cancelled a campaign stop in Ontario due to “safety concerns.” A sign depicted Trudeau being executed by hanging emerged, held by a member of the crowd. And on Tuesday, protesters began hurling small rocks.
Provincial leaders, meanwhile, have tried to distance themselves from the words “vaccine passport,” instead referring to them as “vaccine certificates,” “immunization records,” or “immunization cards.”
But what’s in a name? Experts worry calling immunization records ‘passports’ could cause more harm than good.
The concept of ‘vaccine passports’ was first introduced last year, when COVID-19 vaccines were still undergoing clinical tests in pharmaceutical laboratories. Since then, misinformation has dominated public forums, and public support for the certificates has flip-flopped.
“We have to disentangle and how much of this is driven by a misunderstanding of what it actually entails and how much of it is driven by people deliberately contextualizing the vaccine passport as some kind of assault on civil liberties,” said Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and science communicator teaching at the University of Ottawa.
“If it’s the second, then it doesn’t matter what you call it. They’re going to find a way to contextualize it that way.”
Deonandan said that not all staunch opposition to the vaccine certificates can be attributed to the term ‘vaccine passport,’ but he said the language certainly “doesn’t help.”
“A passport suggests restrictions,” he said. “When we think of passports we also think of border control. You think of uniformed individuals looking up and down, asking for your papers and restricting you from something you feel you have a right to access.”
In the past, scientists and public health officials have been careful when naming pandemic viruses and emerging strains. They were quick to rule out naming COVID-19 after its country of origin, China, out of fears that would fuel anti-Asian racism, and refer to each variant as a different letter of the Greek alphabet.
Even the World Health Organization is careful in its wording, referring to the proof of vaccination as a “digital certificate.”
“We’ve seen people like even (former U.S. president) Donald Trump taking an approach where they politicize the naming conventions of a particular virus like COVID,” said Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and professor at Western University.
“That can have a detrimental effect, whether it’s stigmatization or discrimination on particular populations, whether it’s Chinese populations or Indian populations.”
Calling a certificate a ‘passport’ does not create these issues, Smith continued, “but it could exacerbate them if how we name these things — like a passport — ponders different ideas in people that might lead them more easily to those conclusions.”
For this reason, Dr. Eleanor Fish, who is the associate chair of international collaborations and initiatives at the University of Toronto’s Immunology department, said the language used for disseminating information that affects large groups of people is “very important,” and “needs to be succinct, concise and very specific.”
Vaccine certificates not a new concept
To many, the concept of vaccine certificates may seem new. The reality is they’ve been around for years and are used frequently around the world.
A yellow fever vaccine, for example, is required for anyone travelling to countries such as Venezuela, Congo and Panama. In most provinces in Canada, schools will require a child’s immunization record before allowing them to attend classes. Even dogs are administered vaccines at certain ages to prevent fatal disease.
“People feel that their liberties are being infringed upon with these sort of systems, despite the fact that we have always ordered society in the name of public health with particular protections that protect populations and we view vaccination status as one of those ways to do that,” Smith said.
Deonandan said Canada has a long history of restricting people’s movements for the greater public health good, “whether it be not allowing people under 19 to enter bars, whether it’s not allowing people who are unlicensed to drive cars, whether it’s not allowing people to inject illicit substances into their bodies.”
“Nobody has ever pushed back against that because it’s seen as the appropriate greasing of the wheels of society to allow safe conduct for the greater good,” he said.
“Something about this vaccine is different, and frankly, that difference is the weaponization of the messaging.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rise in conspiracy theories and extremism. Documents obtained by Global News found that neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-government extremists have been using COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation to attract followers, raise money and encourage violence, prompting concerns that extremism could hinder vaccination efforts.
For the “loud minority” of people who fall under that category, Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator, said there is no less inflammatory term that could be used.
“They use ideologies to sidestep science, sidestep facts,” she said.
But for other Canadians who may still be feeling vaccine hesitancy or have genuine concern about what kind of risks will be associated with documenting a person’s proof of vaccination, Yammine said she was worried miscommunication might fuel more of the same.
“This might make them feel further alienated and further isolated and less likely to reason and want to have productive conversations about their decision to get vaccinated,” she said.
Still, Yammine urged Canadians to remember that this was a temporary policy that would not restrict anyone from accessing the essential services that they need, like grocery shopping or a trip to the doctor’s office.
“It’s encouraging you to make a decision, but it’s not forcing you to get vaccinated,” she said.
“You still have freedom to decide. That’s not changing. The only thing changing is the access to non-essential spaces. No one has the fundamental right to go to the movies if doing so could put someone else’s life in danger.”
Re-framing vaccine proof
According to Deonandan, there is a contingent of society that views passports or anything like them to be a clear example of a “government overreach” that restricts what they feel should be free movement, rather than as an opportunity for a safer re-entry into non-essential services.
“I think there is this narrative that if I’ve got mine, why should I care if you’ve got yours?” he said.
At top of mind, Deonandan said, is that vaccine certificates are a necessary part of protecting the unvaccinated from super-spreader events where they are likely to contract more severe and possibly fatal cases of COVID-19.
“I have a child who can’t get vaccinated. To protect him, I need you to get vaccinated. I need you to keep your unvaccinated stuff out of his school,” he said.
But they also help prevent businesses, which are likely venues of super-spreader events, from having to close up shop. Deonandan added they also help prevent breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in people who have already been vaccinated by keeping exposure to the virus down.
“We now understand these vaccines don’t necessarily prevent infection as much as some might expect them to, but they’re really good at preventing hospitalization and death,” he said.
“The way you really maximize that potential is minimizing the probability of being exposed in the first place. That means keeping unvaccinated people out of public places.”
— with files from Global News’ Stewart Bell