Sarah Leamon: Social cohesion, bodily autonomy, and the political debate over mandatory vaccinations

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      Last week, the federal government announced a mandate that will require federal public employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The mandate will also require all commercial air, interprovincial rail, and cruise-ship passengers to be fully vaccinated no later than October.

      The next day, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asked for Parliament to be dissolved, triggering a federal election slated to take place on September 20.

      Mandatory vaccines for Canadians have been a hotly debated issue over the last few months. With nearly 65 percent of the population fully immunized against COVID-19, Canada boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Even still, the push is on to eradicate COVID-19 and thereby end this global pandemic once and for all. Many argue that the only way to do this is with maximum vaccination rates.

      The ethics of mandating vaccines, however, remains contentious.

      The dilemma here lies between public health ethics and individual liberty. It was not very long ago that lawyers and activists fought to secure bodily autonomy rights—particularly for women and other vulnerable minorities—in courtrooms throughout our country. In many respects, these battles are still far from being settled. 

      However, for many Canadians, the landscape of the pandemic has dramatically shifted the lens on bodily autonomy issues when it comes to the very limited scope of COVID-19 vaccines.  Since becoming available, there has been overwhelming public support for vaccines throughout our country. 

      With the vast majority of Canadians more than happy to roll up their sleeve, some remained hesitant, though. As of June, more than 20 percent of Canadians indicated hesitancy toward immunization—with one in 10 saying that they definitely will not get the shot.

      The rising politicization of the pandemic, coupled with an increasingly overt vaccinated-versus-unvaccinated narrative, is doing no favours when it comes to social cohesion and unity with our fellow neighbours. 

      In fact, recent polls indicate that vaccinated Canadians are becoming increasingly intolerant of their unvaccinated counterparts. An Angus Reid Institute poll revealed that about 75 percent of vaccinated Canadians have no sympathy for unvaccinated people who fall ill with COVID-19. This comes at the same time that our B.C.'s Office of Human Rights Commissioner has launched an investigation into the rise of hate incidents and prejudice during the pandemic.

      Whether you are for the vaccines or against them, one thing is certain—the pandemic is polarizing society and deepening divides between us. 

      And now, cue the federal election.

      With vaccines as a hot-button issue, various party leaders are already weighing in on their approach to mandatory inoculation and how best to end the pandemic sooner rather than later.

      Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has already voiced his opinion on the issue, saying that his party would not support mandatory vaccines.

      Instead, O’Toole says a Conservative-led government would prefer regular rapid testing to keep workplaces and other public spaces safe from COVID-19. He has described the Liberals' plan for mandated vaccines as divisive. He believes that Canadians would prefer a more reasonable, balanced approach that protests the sanctity of their personal health-care decisions.    

      Trudeau, on the other hand, has been less than consistent in his messaging. 

      Although he supports mandated vaccines for many Canadians, a recent online notice stated that there would be alternative options available for those who refuse the vaccine. This was taken down and later described as erroneous. Trudeau has since said that those who choose not to get vaccinated will face consequences. What those consequences may be, however, has not been outlined in any detail. 

      NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has voiced his support for mandatory vaccines, stating that employees who refuse vaccinations for reasons other than health could face disciplinary measures at work. He views this as necessary to protect the health and safety of all Canadians. 

      Whichever approach you prefer, however, our focus should be on cohesion, rather than division. 

      Politicizing the pandemic—and the vaccine itself—for electoral gain detracts from the real issue at hand and creates a deeply divisive wedge issue, capable of pushing Canadians further apart. 

      Instead, our leaders should push partisan politics aside on this particular issue. 

      Tackling vaccination rates with a balanced and consolidated approach to health, science and clear messaging will foster solitary and enhance trust not only between individual Canadians, but also with respect to the government and ongoing healthcare initiatives.  

      This approach may not only help to put this pandemic in our rear-view mirror once and for all, but could also be instrumental in rebuilding trust and goodwill in our communities. Regardless of whatever your political views may be, that is something we should all be able to get behind.