Sarah Leamon: Fining the unvaccinated misses the mark on what makes us Canadian

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      The push to get all eligible Canadian’s vaccinated is going to extremes in one Canadian province. Earlier this week, Quebec’s premier, François Legault, made astonishing remarks about the lengths that his province will go to ensure compliance with vaccination efforts.

      During a news conference on Tuesday, Legault said that the province intends to issue fines to adults who refuse to get vaccinated. Although he did not give an idea of what the fine amounts may be, he did say that they will be “significant”. He went on to say that he does not consider $50 or $100 to be “significant”.

      Legault also said that the fine would only apply to adults who chose to remain unvaccinated. Those who can prove that they are medically exempt will not be fined.  

      These comments underscored further provincial efforts to push the willfully unvaccinated to comply, including efforts to ban them from entering grocery stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores. Unvaccinated people have already been banned from non-essential services, including restaurants and public events, since September of last year.

      Every province in Canada has implemented similar measures in hopes of bolstering their vaccination rates. Understandably so—we have a pandemic on our hands that is far too long running. 

      Quebec’s latest efforts, however, are horribly misguided, tone-deaf, and just plain wrong.

      They may also be illegal.

      The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms offers certain protections with respect to bodily autonomy and medical decisions. This includes the right to decline medical treatment, even in the face of well-intentioned advice. Of course, no charter right—including this one—is absolute. Some of our rights can be limited or even breached in particular circumstances, like a pandemic. We have seen examples of this in a variety of instances over the last two years. 

      However, it is very likely that levying fines against those who do not comply with a particular medical treatment goes too far.    

      Imposing fines for noncompliances moves enforcement measures from restrictive to quasi-criminal in nature. This is a deeply troubling step in the wrong direction. In order for the government to justify it in a court of law, they would need to provide clear and compelling evidence to demonstrate that there are no other reasonable alternatives to it.

      This, in my view, would be a long shot.

      But on top of being potentially illegal, fining the unvaccinated is also morally repugnant. And it is particularly repugnant from a distinctly Canadian point of view.

      Canadian identity is rooted in more than a handful of things, but one of the frontrunners on our short list of what-makes-us-us is universal health care. 

      The Canadian belief that all people are entitled to basic health care is a foundation stone of our selfhood. It unites us, distinguishes us from our neighbors to the south, and has earned us a positive reputation in the global community. Universal health care is a source of pride for many, and a matter of life and death for some. 

      Imposing a fine for one’s personal medical decision—including the decision to remain unvaccinated—undermines universal health care and marks the start of a very slippery slope.

      We cannot condone a system that punishes some for their lifestyle choices, while implicitly rewarding others. We would not tolerate a health care system that imposed levies against patients for their food or exercise choices, their use of substances including cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs, or even their recreational choices. 

      We would not agree that a person who was injured in a skydiving accident should pay more for treatment because they ought to have known the risks associated with skydiving ahead of time, or that a person with COPD should pay more because they were a lifelong smoker.  These are absurd propositions; but they are not much different than Legault’s proposal to fine the unvaccinated. 

      It simply flies in the face of morality.

      What’s more, measures like this are unlikely to be effective in upping the vaccination rate. Those who remain opposed to the vaccine or vaccine-hesitant may habour a sense of distrust in the medical system and in the government. Forcing compliance in this manner is more likely to confirm their heavy-handed view of the government. It unlikely to quell their fears or to change their minds.

      As the old saying goes—you can’t win them all…but, this move risks losing most.