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It’s time to really ramp up pressure on the unvaccinated

Click to play video: '‘It frightens me’: Canadians divided on Quebec’s proposed anti-vax tax' ‘It frightens me’: Canadians divided on Quebec’s proposed anti-vax tax
WATCH: Canadians divided on Quebec's proposed anti-vax tax

How hard should Canada be pushing unvaccinated citizens to finally get inoculated against COVID-19?

We should be pushing them extremely hard. We should be persuading and pressuring vaccine holdouts in every way we can think of — educating, incentivizing, penalizing — short of all-out public shaming or frog-marching them to clinics and forcing needles into their arms.

Read more: Provinces ‘right’ to explore vaccination incentives, Trudeau says, as Quebec plans anti-vax tax

The Quebec government’s controversial plan to impose a “health tax” of at least $100 on unvaccinated adults has ignited a nationwide debate about how far jurisdictions should go to stem the tide of COVID infections, now swamping hospitals across the country.

“All Quebec adults who refuse in the coming weeks to at least get a first dose will be getting a bill,” Premier François Legault said Tuesday in announcing the policy.

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But such a measure should come as no surprise. The pressure has been building for weeks in Canada and beyond. Anger over the unfathomable failure of the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves and take a jab for the sake of their own health — if not for the thousands of vulnerable fellow citizens who could die because of their resistance — has been simmering among the vaccinated and threatening to boil over.

Now it has.

Click to play video: 'Quebec to introduce health tax for the unvaccinated' Quebec to introduce health tax for the unvaccinated
Quebec to introduce health tax for the unvaccinated

The phrase “pandemic of the unvaccinated” had gained considerable currency in recent months because of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19’s Delta and Omicron variants have been having among the roughly 10 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older who haven’t consented to even a single jab.

That’s about three million Canadian adults and adolescents, the majority of whom have chosen not to get vaccinated because of defiance, fear, ignorance, complacency or some combination of these factors. In the case of teenagers, the vaccine resistance or hesitancy of their parents is likely behind their needlessly increased exposure to severe health impacts from the mutating coronavirus.

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We’re not talking here about folks with legitimate medical exemptions. And we know, for example, that Indigenous people — for longstanding reasons that Canadians have become all too familiar with this year — are more prone to mistrust health officials and refuse to be vaccinated. Nevertheless, their leaders, too, need to intensify efforts to increase vaccination rates.

It’s bad enough that unvaccinated people are putting themselves, their children and other loved ones — especially grandparents — at heightened risk. But they’re also making a grossly outsized contribution to the catastrophe that seems likely to engulf Canada’s strained-to-the-breaking-point hospitals and healthcare workers.

Read more: Quebec wants to tax people unvaccinated against COVID-19. Can the province do that?

Even though there are about 10 times more vaccinated than unvaccinated Canadians aged 12 and up, close to half of all COVID-19 patients now overrunning many of Canada’s hospital wards and intensive care units are those who have refused to book an appointment to receive a shot of Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.

While vaccination isn’t a foolproof safeguard against infection, there’s no doubt it sharply reduces the chances of serious health impacts, hospitalization and death. It’s a no-brainer.

And so, depending on how things unfold in the coming weeks, the firm push to get the unvaccinated vaccinated could well move closer to the kind of coercive measures now being seen in Quebec. “Mandatory vaccination” has been a top-trending Twitter topic in Canada. Politicians and pundits have been weighing the pros and cons. The idea is in the air.

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Constitutional expert weighs in on Quebec health tax' COVID-19: Constitutional expert weighs in on Quebec health tax
COVID-19: Constitutional expert weighs in on Quebec health tax

Will other governments impose financial penalties on those Canadians who won’t get vaccinated? Will more and more of their freedoms be curtailed, more privileges revoked? Could they be bumped from their place in line for certain medical services — as shocking as that sounds — in favour of those who did everything public health officials advised to protect themselves from COVID-19?

Last Friday, the Quebec College of Physicians had urged the province to “step up the pace” of COVID-19 measures aimed at limiting the general public’s exposure to unvaccinated individuals.

“The vaccinated population can no longer suffer in silence from the constraints of sanitary measures while unvaccinated people (who now make up a very small proportion of Quebec’s population) occupy one in two beds in short-term care and the majority of beds in intensive care,” wrote Dr. Mauril Gaudreault, president of the Collège des médecins du Québec.

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Click to play video: 'Quebec to begin fining the unvaccinated' Quebec to begin fining the unvaccinated
Quebec to begin fining the unvaccinated

The most coercive measures must, of course, be very last on the list of actions Canadian governments should take to blunt the awful impact of the wildly transmissible Omicron variant. But the healthcare situation may well get so bad in the coming weeks that — if less forceful tactics fail — political leaders may have no choice but to somehow compel the unvaccinated to get their duty done, at long last.

It’s clearly the question of the moment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a point of saying last week that governments, health workers and the population at large are “frustrated that there are Canadians who still continue to choose to not get vaccinated.”

The federal health minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, signalled the distinct possibility — even the probability — that provinces will need to impose some form of mandatory vaccination on refuseniks: “What we see now,” Duclos said Friday, “is that our health care system in Canada is fragile, our people are tired, and the only way that we know to get through COVID-19, this variant and any future variant, is through vaccination.”

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And Quebec — perhaps inspired by French President Emmanuel Macron’s stated intent to “piss off” his country’s unvaccinated citizens with increasingly restrictive public health rules — also announced last week that it will require residents of the province to provide proof of vaccination to enter a government-owned liquor store or cannabis dispensary.

Given the pervasiveness of alcohol and pot dependency in society — or at least the profoundly powerful desire for these substances — curbing access to them based on vaccination status amounts to strong-arming many citizens of Quebec to submit to a shot of anti-COVID protection.

Even before those tough new rules on booze and weed come into effect on Jan. 18, the mere announcement seemed to achieve the desired effect. Within 24 hours, across the province, vaccination bookings among those yet to receive a shot had quadrupled from 1,500 per day to 6,000.

That bodes well, and other provinces should promptly follow suit. It suggests that only a small, ideologically blinkered portion of Canada’s unvaccinated population can’t be budged on the idea of taking a jab. Perhaps only this narrow societal fringe is truly unmovable — the deniers of science, the right-wing anti-vaxxer fanatics who cling to the dangerous idea that individual liberty must be absolute, even when the common good is imminently threatened (as in a pandemic) by the unrestrained exercise of personal freedom.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: B.C. not planning for health tax on unvaccinated at this time' COVID-19: B.C. not planning for health tax on unvaccinated at this time
COVID-19: B.C. not planning for health tax on unvaccinated at this time

Still, it doesn’t help that just as many Canadians and some political leaders have finally, reluctantly reached the point of wrestling with the last-resort notion of mandatory — or quasi-coerced — vaccination, certain other political leaders have rushed to declare their unyielding opposition to any such pressure tactic.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe swiftly stated that there would be no measures introduced in those provinces — respectively the No. 1 and No. 2 provinces in the country for percentage of unvaccinated citizens — to deny people their “personal choice” about whether to get vaccinated.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has done much to fuel anti-vaxxer sentiment, to his eternal discredit. He was the star speaker at a Montreal rally on Saturday that drew thousands of people protesting expanded COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

“There is no convincing case for compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations,” Bernier also tweeted over the weekend. “Mandatory policies are a blunt tool aimed at covering up government ineptitude.”

Meanwhile, federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, even as he routinely urges unvaccinated Canadians to get their shots, just as routinely echoes the “personal choice” argument, plays up the need for “accommodation” of the unvaccinated, and otherwise constantly undercuts his pro-vaccine messaging.

Read more: As Omicron surges, O’Toole pressed on calls to ‘accommodate’ vaccine holdouts

So conflicted is O’Toole on the issue that members of his own caucus are still not required to be vaccinated. And he excessively focuses his COVID-response critiques on rapid-testing issues and on “education” as the best way to change the minds of the unvaccinated, as if a solid year of experts endlessly explaining the safety and efficacy of vaccination — then promoting and cajoling and pleading and explaining it all again — hasn’t been enough.

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Nevertheless, yes — educating holdouts about vaccines should continue. But there must also be more forceful and effective means of creating converts to common sense. There’s never been a more urgent need for this since the start of the pandemic, and time is running out for even stronger measures to make much difference.

Certainly, no one wants to deny anyone their personal choice, even if it’s clear they’re risking their own lives. But what happens when continuing to exercise that choice during a runaway phase of the pandemic means so many other people’s lives — literally thousands — are placed at much greater risk? Healthcare systems are clearly much more likely to buckle under the strain of rampant, severe infections among the unvaccinated.

And what if it means we are all doomed to live through an extra year or more of pandemic deprivation and danger because COVID-19 will continue to spread and mutate — particularly via the vector of the unvaccinated — and cause that much more misery and illness and death?

These harrowing scenarios, no longer hypothetical, are now upon us. Alas, it really isn’t a pandemic of the unvaccinated, because the additional hurt and peril they’ve caused has swept across all sectors of society.

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Short of physically forcing Canada’s unvaccinated millions to knuckle under and receive their doses, how else can governments — like those of Kenney and Moe and Premier Doug Ford of Ontario — turn the screws on resisters to get them “voluntarily” vaccinated? That’s where their mental energy and persuasive powers and concerted actions — a.k.a. “leadership” — should be directed at this dark hour.

Vaccine mandates in certain workplaces, including federal government departments, are examples of how unvaccinated Canadians have already been subject to serious pressure to get inoculated. Prohibitions on air and train travel and indoor dining are others. Legault’s “health tax” and Quebec-style restrictions around liquor and cannabis sales, too, could have a motivating effect on the unvaccinated in other jurisdictions.

Measures to keep tightening the vise, as the Quebec doctors urged, need to follow everywhere across Canada until as many holdouts as possible are at least partially immunized.

The dire circumstances confronting Canada’s healthcare systems are forcing the cancellation of elective and “non-urgent” surgeries but also, ominously, even some cancer treatments and critical, time-sensitive operations scheduled for patients with serious heart ailments and other life-threatening illnesses. “Right now, if you need cardiac surgery, you’re very likely not to get it,” Dr. Paul Warshawsky, the head of the ICU at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, told the CBC few days ago.

Is it any wonder that public patience towards vaccine holdouts has worn vanishingly thin?

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With provincial healthcare systems across the country on the brink of collapse from the surge of Omicron-triggered hospitalizations — including intensive-care units — there’s been increased scrutiny on which patients are most responsible for creating the very calamity that Canada (along with other countries) has been trying to avoid since the start of the pandemic, by “flattening the curve” of hospital admissions. Today, the curve looks like a cliff.

Identifying who’s “most responsible” for the present predicament Canada faces is perhaps an unkind way of putting things. Ultimately, nature’s to blame for all of this, of course. Throughout history, the planet has inflicted occasional pandemics on the Earth’s human population. And all of our technological progress up to these early decades of the 21st century has not been enough to entirely shield us from the impact of such a global outbreak of viral illness.

But we have developed fairly effective mitigation measures. Canada’s public health system, like those of other nations, coalesced in the 19th century precisely to combat sweeping cholera, typhus and smallpox outbreaks. Dramatic progress was made through state-mandated sanitation standards, quarantine regimes and a host of other public health initiatives — vaccination chief among them — aimed at preventing the contraction and spread of serious communicable diseases.

Yet how is it possible, some two centuries later, that so many Canadians are still resisting the use of the single most powerful weapon any public health system has in its arsenal to fight a deadly pandemic?

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They must be convinced — or somehow badgered into action anyway — that when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination, the time has come for them to take one for the team.

Randy Boswell is an Ottawa journalist and Carleton University professor.

 

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