Saving lives beats vaccine liberty

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Armed with today’s knowledge and technology, it only makes sense to issue an international vaccine for anyone who plans to travel.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 26, 2021.

When does personal freedom blind us to professional responsibility?

When the health-care system permits unvaccinated workers in facilities housing vulnerable people.

It is the state’s job, first and foremost, to protect those who are under its care in public hospitals or long-term communal living arrangements.

The Quebec government understands that. Last April, it became the first jurisdiction in Canada to require health-care workers to either vaccinate or provide thrice-weekly COVID tests to their employers.

Alberta, on the other hand, is clinging to the notion that a vaccination requirement is a violation of civil liberties. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is even considering amending a 100-year-old Alberta law that gives the government the right to mandate vaccines in certain circumstances.

Why would any government assume it is okay to allow employees who have not been vaccinated to come to work?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters last week that he thinks it is a constitutional right that, “no one should be forced to do anything.” With that perspective, we should all stop paying taxes.

Someone should ask the premier what happened to the constitutional rights of the frail and elderly in long-term care facilities who depend on us to protect them. Many other countries have already decided it is not a personal freedom issue but a health responsibility for those who work in facilities that look after the vulnerable and hospitalized.

Several European countries have already mandated vaccinations for all health-care employees. France, a country which has some of the strongest worker protection laws in the world, has imposed a deadline of Sept. 15 for health-care workers to be vaccinated or lose their jobs.

Throughout the pandemic, politicians have repeatedly stated that it is their job to listen to the science.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has been calling on provincial governments to make sure they bring in vaccination rules that cover all facilities, not just those in the public sector. The CMAJ also believes that mandatory vaccinations in those facilities would pass a Charter challenge even though a previous call for mandatory flu vaccines was disallowed.

In this case, the disease transmission and death rate from failing to vaccinate is much higher than for a flu vaccine, and there are already a number of vaccination requirements mandated for hospital employment that have passed Charter scrutiny.

Health-care associations in Canada have been calling on premiers to act quickly and save lives.

Voiceless patients in long-term care facilities, many of whom died during this pandemic, have every right to be fully protected.

On-site testing is not enough.

What is even more egregious is that the cost of refusing the vaccination is not even being borne by the anti-vaxer, but by the rest of us.

In many instances, health-care professionals are required to have tests to prove they are COVID-free. In New Brunswick, unvaccinated workers in long-term care facilities must be tested every second day. If the test is molecular, the cost is approximately $200 each, so in the course of a single week, $800 could be spent to guarantee the employment rights of anti-vaxxers.

A simpler solution would be to make the vaccine mandatory and deliver it quickly.

British Columbia’s chief medical officer of health stated last month that mandatory vaccination was one of the options being considered in their long-term care facilities.

According to the Ontario Medical Association and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, mandatory vaccines in the health care system could help prevent a third wave of infection caused by the delta variant of the Coronavirus.

On the science side, the verdict is unanimous: a health care vaccination program would have a significant impact in reducing the possibility or severity of a third wave of variant Covid infection.

There is zero reason for politicians to play the civil liberty card on this one.

I still carry a federal vaccination card that was co-issued by Health Canada and the World Health Organization as a requirement to comply with international health regulations when entering various countries. The vaccines were administered and signed off by Health Canada and you could not enter certain countries without this vaccination certificate.

In those days, we were not dealing with a virus that morphed into a pandemic.

Armed with today’s knowledge and technology, it only makes sense to issue an international vaccine for anyone who plans to travel.

And it is about time the Canadian government and the provinces got their act together and realized that saving lives trumps vaccine liberty.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.