Chairman's Desk

Understanding the gulf in opinion on mandates is crucial for addressing anti-vaccine sentiment

As countries around the world grapple with the issue of mandatory vaccinations, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the Biden administration’s approach a major blow on Thursday. It blocked the president’s workplace vaccine mandate, allowing only a significantly diminished provision for federally funded health-care providers.

The court ruled that Biden had crossed a bridge too far. He was not alone in his disappointment. Here in Canada, efforts to increase vaccination uptake are becoming increasingly necessary, even as they become more fraught with legal challenges.

The Omicron surge has brought with it significantly increased impatience with the unvaccinated, as well as growing support for further penalties against the unvaccinated. The result? A sudden and unexpected exigency for political leaders across the world.

For Canada, a middle power that has long been able to straddle the varying interests and customs of its allies, the divergence in global responses is becoming painfully clear.

Quebec Premier François Legault’s proposed imposition of a health tax on the unvaccinated is aligned with the more drastic measures taken by some European nations. Given that Quebecers favour stronger restrictions on the unvaccinated compared to the rest of Canada, the premier’s unforgiving approach may play well politically — at least at home.

Yet in his eagerness to appease the exasperation of the vaccinated majority, Legault’s tax policy failed to provide clarity on exemptions or process, raising questions about its legality — never mind, from a policy perspective, its impact on marginalized groups.

The province is not the only Canadian jurisdiction facing obstacles in its attempts to pressure the unvaccinated.

Recently, the prime minister has been markedly hostile toward the unvaccinated, referring to them as racists and misogynists. In riling up the vaccinated majority, Justin Trudeau was following French President Emmanuel Macron. And given the difference in his English and French remarks, one is left to wonder if Trudeau was playing specifically to a Quebec audience with his tone.

The federal government, having largely retreated by designating mandatory vaccinations a provincial matter, managed to fumble its own attempts to ratify mandatory vaccinations for truckers crossing the U.S. border this week.

Even though the Canada Border Services Agency said Canadian drivers would be exempt, a day later, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that was an “error” and, in fact, drivers would be subject to the measure. The predicable result was an instant protest by the trucking industry and dark warnings that the last-minute measure will exacerbate supply shortages, estimating it could lose 10 to 15 per cent of its workforce.

All of these challenges reflect a serious concern for political leaders intent on meeting the demands of pandemic-weary constituents. While public opinion is very supportive of widespread government intervention toward vaccination, the legal dimensions and the international perspective are a different beast.

The case in the U.S. will no doubt be cited as a significant legal litmus test of the ability to enforce sweeping orders, and might well cause a knock-on effect in other jurisdictions.

For Australia, the Novak Djokovic drama made this all very real last week. It demonstrated above all that politicians now face overwhelming public pressure to clamp down on behaviour that makes a mockery of the sacrifices people have made — even if it involves the world’s number one tennis player.

Djokovic’s flaunting of the restrictions and the revelation he had gained a questionable travel exemption were just too much. For a country that had endured some of the most severe lockdowns and border restrictions, the eruption of anger was predictable.

Yet, while Australians sit at one end of the spectrum, we cannot forget that six well-educated and informed Supreme Court justices sit at the other.

Understanding that gulf of opinion is crucial for dealing with the anti-vaccine issue. With our health-care system facing another crushing spate of infections and public patience wearing thin, our options are running out.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on January 16, 2022.

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