Lack of incentives enabling anti-vaxxers

CHRIS MacLEAN  –  Aug 27, 2021

It is a fact that efforts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic depend on getting the majority of people vaccinated, however, vaccinating everyone is proving to be a challenge.

The Delta variant reportedly now accounts for 99% of all new cases. Deaths among the non-vaccinated population are increasing alarmingly, and "breakthrough" cases (when a vaccinated person gets infected) are also on the rise, leading to dire warnings from scientists.

According to epidemiologists, the more total cases you have, the more "breakthrough" cases you will have – and this increases opportunities for the virus to mutate. "What we don’t want to see happen," says Markham doctor Allan Grill, "are people who are vaccinated ending up with severe cases […] so you want to protect everybody around them. The key is to keep the case counts down. And the way to do that is to get vaccinated."

Earlier this year, the People’s Vaccine Alliance surveyed epidemiologists in 28 countries. Two-thirds believed we have a year or less before the virus mutates to the extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines are rendered ineffective and new or modified vaccines are required. Of those surveyed, almost a third estimated a timeframe of nine months or less.

Based on scientific projections on the inevitability that mutations will develop due to less-than-optimal vaccination counts, it is clear that "anti-vaxxers" are not only risking their own lives but impeding the return to global safety and economic recovery for everyone.

Despite relatively moderate transmission levels recorded across most of the United States as recently as June 2021, those levels are now spiking and all 50 states are now experiencing high spread levels, and filling ICU beds with unvaccinated patients. It is forecast that 100,000 more COVID-19 deaths will occur in the U.S. between now and the end of November 2021.

Canada is also experiencing a spike, particularly as the Delta variant hospitalizes the non-vaccinated, who cling to a perceived right to put others at risk.

How do we tip the scale in ways that encourage those who have been reticent or just can't be bothered to get vaccinated? We give them incentives. I'm not talking lottery tickets or other hand-outs. I'm talking about day-to-day advantages. Businesses are anxious to open to vaccinated patrons, yet too many provinces have not helped with this. Implementing vaccination passports provides an easy way for organizations to quickly ascertain whether a patron has been vaccinated. This also gives it's patrons an added measure of comfort, knowing that each have done their very best to keep the virus at bay.

What is the downside to vaccination passports? Ontario says it will create a 2-class system. Others would call it an important safety-net. When the goal is health and safety, that's a system worth cultivating. An equally flimsy argument is that govt-issued passports would be susceptible to fraud. Any government document can be forged if you have the right resources, but currently the only option to prove vaccination in Ontario is a piece of paper that anyone with access to a photocopier can quickly counterfeit.

Quebec and B.C. already have created smartphone-based vaccine passports that people can use to prove their COVID-19 immunization status in commercial or public spaces. The Quebec passport system will be in operation starting Sept. 1 and will effectively bar people who aren't fully vaccinated from many non-essential activities where provincial law will soon require proof of a shot before entry.

Manitoba has also announced plans fora vaccine mandate that will restrict restaurants, fitness centres, theatres and ticketed sporting events to people who show proof of vaccination. 

Ontario may be coming around. Today, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, says so many businesses are already requiring customers to be vaccinated that it makes sense to have a portable, central system for proving vaccination status.

In a similar vein, your child cannot be registered for school in Ontario without proof of numerous mandatory vaccines. What's the problem with adding one more imminently dangerous disease to the list of required vaccines? Is that a 2-class system or is that a safety net?

At a press conference today, Prime Minister Trudeau promised a $1-billion fund to support provinces and territories in their implementation and operation of proof-of-vaccination options for non-essential businesses and public spaces – but the federal government will not impose a vaccine passport.

"We are not going to tell provinces what is exactly right for them but we will be there to support them if they move forward" with strong clear vaccination mandates for nonessential activities, said Trudeau, who has been heckled by angry anti-vaxxers along his Ontario and Manitoba campaign trail.

Beata Caranci, chief economist at TD Bank, recently suggested that provinces that don’t move forward with vaccination certification risk slower growth and less job creation because they are not doing what is necessary for recovery.

Similar to antibiotic-resistant infections, the foreshadowing of a globally mutating virus is the next and very real threat. Will anti-vaxxers continue to ascribe to their myopic views? Will governments continue to allow them the right to put the rest of us at risk? If so, who will be to blame?

These are clearly difficult circumstances, but this obvious and pragmatic incentive is clearly in the public interest. Enabling it is within Provincial jurisdiction. What's needed, as difficult as it may be, is called leadership. Premiers that fail to demonstrate leadership at this critical juncture can also expect to be held accountable.

Chris MacLean