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Canadians evenly split on progress of COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Public divided over way in which federal and provincial governments have handled vaccinations
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In Canada, where life is decidedly marked by the passing of the seasons, our psyche during the various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic has been influenced by the weather.

In the spring of 2020, the country was ready and willing to observe specific rituals of cleanliness. By the summer, we even had a chance to interact with other people outside and some recreational activities returned in modified forms.

The fall, unfortunately, brought more cases, and the winter gave us new variants of COVID-19 that forced the return of some dreaded limitations. For many Canadians who have spent the pandemic dreaming of sunnier weather abroad, the new travel restrictions struck hard.

A vaccine has always been regarded as the key solution that would allow Canadians to go about their daily lives the same way they did in 2019. Still, this does not mean that every person is aching to roll up their sleeve. We have consistently seen that about one in six Canadians do not plan to be inoculated, a proportion that has budged little regardless of the latest developments.

Last week, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the current state of affairs related to the vaccine rollout. The findings outline a sense of incredulity from Canadians with the promise of a pandemic-free Canada by Thanksgiving, as well as a divided public when it comes to the way in which federal and provincial administrations have handled their duties.

In December 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) stated that it expected to have enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate every willing Canadian by the end of September 2021. In our survey, 45% of Canadians expect this goal to be attained, while 46% believe the forecast will be wrong.

The federal government has been exceedingly careful in issuing any predictions related the pandemic, particularly when we compare Canada to the other two North American countries. In the United States, the (now former) president expected COVID-19 to “go away with the heat.” It did not. In Mexico, the current head of state claimed in June 2020 that “not lying, not stealing and not betraying” kept the virus away. He tested positive in January 2021, as the country he leads reached a COVID-19 mortality rate of 8.5% (Peru is a distant second on this indicator, at 3.6%).

With this context, meeting the September 2021 inoculation goal is crucial for the political longevity of the federal government. Last year, we saw how the proper management of the pandemic allowed the provincial administrations of New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan to earn new mandates.

At this point, the division that is evident on the question about the future is also observed when Canadians assess the present. Across the country, 46% of respondents are satisfied with the procurement of vaccine doses from the federal government, while a very similar proportion (43%) are dissatisfied. This does not compare favourably with the numbers that Ottawa has enjoyed for its pandemic handling, where the lowest level of satisfaction recorded was 58% in January.

Canadians are more likely to be satisfied with the vaccination plans and phases outlined by their province (51%). Still, as has been the case on other aspects of COVID-19, the numbers are lower in Ontario (45%) and Alberta (42%).

When it comes to the pace of vaccination efforts in their province, Canadians are more critical. Only 41% are satisfied with the way things are going on this front, with Quebec (46%), British Columbia (45%) and Atlantic Canada (42%) edging above the nationwide average.

Canadians have been following the development of vaccines since the pandemic began. So far, only two have been authorized by the federal government: the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Sizable proportions of Canadians consider these two options as “safe” for them personally (69% for Moderna and 67% for Pfizer).

The perceptions are not as glowing for the Oxford-Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine, with 48% of Canadians believing it is “safe” for them personally. At the time this column was written, there was no final decision from Health Canada on whether this vaccine would be allowed in the country.

Seeking doses from other sources may not put the country at ease. Five other vaccines are being used in other jurisdictions around the world, but Canadians do not hold any of them in high regard. Only 20% believe two vaccines from Russia (the KeeGam-COVID-Vac or Sputnik V and the EpiVacCorona) and one from India (BBV152 Varat Biotech) are “safe”. Even fewer trust the ones developed in China: the CoronaVac Sinovac (18%), the Ad5-nCoV CanSino Biologics (17%) and the BBIBP-CorV Sinopharm (15%).

This federal government has experienced bad press before, particularly when the stories about SNC Lavalin and WE Charity broke. Right now, for every Canadian that is happy with the procurement of vaccine doses, there is one who is disappointed. The fact that this issue affects everyone makes the rollout the most important communications challenge that this administration has faced.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online survey conducted from January 30 to February 1, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.