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'Make it make sense'
The Canadian government suspends vaccine mandates for travel and the civil service, while doubling down on irrational Covid policy - risking further eroding public trust
For a brief moment this week, millions of unvaccinated Canadians had reason for optimism. News broke that the government planned to lift the vaccine mandates that have been in place since October, barring the unvaccinated from domestic and outbound international travel by air and rail and — in the case of the federal public service and federally regulated transportation sectors — earning a living.
The decision comes amid growing pressure from the Conservative party, Pierre Poilievre, Liberal MPs, infectious diseases physicians, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, other unions, the tourism industry, border mayors, the public, and the media, which has been openly questioning the mandates. Not to mention a viral video from former NHL player Ryan Whitney complaining about the absurdly bottlenecked Toronto airport, which he referred to on Twitter as “hell on earth.”
Add to that, a recent peer-reviewed paper from a group of international researchers — headed up by Canadian social scientist Kevin Bardosh — explores vaccine mandates’ unintended consequences. The paper argues:
…current mandatory vaccine policies are scientifically questionable and are likely to cause more societal harm than good. Restricting people’s access to work, education, public transport and social life based on COVID-19 vaccination status impinges on human rights, promotes stigma and social polarisation, and adversely affects health and well-being. Current policies may lead to a widening of health and economic inequalities, detrimental long-term impacts on trust in government and scientific institutions, and reduce the uptake of future public health measures, including COVID-19 vaccines as well as routine immunisations.
Yes, as of June 20, the approximately five million unvaccinated citizens in this country will now be able to travel (unless they want to go on a cruise). Yes, unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave will be invited back to work (for now). And yes, the government has acknowledged natural immunity, stating in passing at the press conference that the reason it was able to suspend mandates was because of high vaccination rates and immunity gained from infections.
But the problems with Canada’s announcement are multifold. First and foremost, this is a suspension, not an end, to vaccine mandates. And the government repeatedly emphasized Tuesday that it won’t hesitate to reimplement mandates if it deems them necessary.
Add to that, effective immediately, the new standard for “fully vaccinated” is three doses. This signals the government’s intention to double down on current Covid policy. Indeed, officials stated explicitly that the government expects the public to keep vaccination schedules up-to-date going forward. This is a move that — if third dose uptake rates are any indication, being the lowest of all G7 countries — Canadians may not support.
There is, too, the curious fact that unvaccinated Canadians returning to the country will be required to quarantine for 14 days, but people who have actually tested positive for the virus only have to quarantine for 5 days.
This clearly does not add up.
Infectious diseases physician and McMaster University professor Zain Chagla summed up my own reaction when he tweeted: “Make it make sense.”
And herein lies the biggest problem: Public policy should make sense.
They key fact in all of this is something that has been known for some time: The vaccine does not prevent transmission and infection. (Our fully-vaccinated Prime Minister, for instance, currently has Covid for the second time in six months.)
This simple fact renders any vaccine mandate illogical.
To my mind, one of the most concerning issues with the announcement Tuesday is that officials declined to clearly outline the data guiding government decision-making, while insisting that its actions were driven by “science.”
Mia Rabson of Canadian Press pressed this point at the press conference: “You’ve said repeatedly that science is what was informing your decisions … Six months ago the science said that the vaccines we had were not preventing infection. Why did it take six months for the government to move on vaccine mandates?”
Then, in her follow-up question: “Many of your opponents have accused you of playing politics with this rather than science. You have not put the science on the table. What science has changed in the last few weeks that’s different than what we knew in December?”
Going forward, the Canadian government must give a coherent, evidence-based explanation for the rationale behind its strategy.
Declining to do so risks further eroding badly damaged public trust — with a recent Canadian survey finding that 52 percent of interviewees believed official government accounts of events can’t be trusted — and promotes the perception that the government is playing politics with Canadians’ basic rights and freedoms.
It also paves the way for a victory for the Conservatives in the next election. Which is something that the Liberals might want to consider.