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Opinion: Vaxx-or-tax plan would be a detour down a slippery slope for Canada

We have no right to be smug about a health system that is underfinanced despite its expense, vulnerable, inflexible and insufficiently modernized, writes Kirk LaPointe
What COVID has done is tell us what we should have known some time ago: Coronavirus ought to be coaxing commitments to fix the fundamentals, but if that’s happening, it’s not noticeable.

Don’t do it, Justin.

Don’t follow the desperation and determination of Quebec Premier François Legault, even if his vaxx-or-tax plan for his province is tempting.

Don’t follow, either, the frustration and fulmination of commentators suggesting we deny the unvaccinated the universal health care we have shared as a country unreservedly without judgment.

Yes, two years in, our patience has worn reed-thin. Yes, our trust has tumbled. Yes, our authorities have lost the room. Yes, the pandemic has hobbled our businesses, torn our families, buckled our morale, enervated when we so need to be energized. And yes, there are moments and more for many of us abiding the maddeningly iterative science in which we wish we could punish those who have stopped listening or maybe never did.

But don’t do it. Don’t bring national leadership to the slipperiest of slopes.

Even if hardly anyone is being persuaded any longer to take the jab, even if it seems a logical step to hit the unvaccinated where it hurts, even if Legault has denied them the liquor and cannabis stores (as if that won’t be worked around) and signalled (perhaps bluffed) a new tax, this is not where your leadership – our leadership – needs to go.

It might also seem politically advantageous to socially distance from Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s calls for an accommodation of unvaccinated Canadians, much in the way you employed the issue of vaccine proof in the election to your benefit and his detriment.

But this is a time, when emotions are running as high as case counts, to cool the temperature and temperament, to come to terms in accepting – as our Charter of Rights and Freedoms suggests – that there is autonomy over our bodies and medical decisions.

Of course, the difference in this case is that the infected unvaccinated can harm others, but the combination of restrictions, the imminent availability of self-testing and the continued regime of vaccine proof are in place as a form of safety-making segregation until the variants wither. Why would we need anything more?

This is not a time to talk about “those people,” not a time to emulate Legault or France’s Emmanuel Macron (both with elections facing them), but a time to talk to all of us, and a time for soothing instead of stigmatizing.

If there is, as Legault puts it, an economic motive – that the unvaccinated place an undue expense on the health system for which they must pay – well, that argument could extend to many other physical conditions and personal decisions. We could open quite the can of worms. Let’s not.

Let’s instead recognize that even the vaccinated are infecting others and in hospitals, weakening the credibility of any get vaxxed-or-get-sick message. Delta and Omicron have wreaked havoc with the predictions about the vaccines. Nothing about the pandemic is worth guaranteeing, we have learned.

True, our front-line workers are running on fumes, our hospitals are filling and surgeries are being sacrificed to tend to the disproportionately unvaccinated patients. But the foundation of those triple troubles long preceded the pandemic, and a punitive tax in no way provides answers.

What COVID has done is tell us what we should have known some time ago: Coronavirus ought to be coaxing commitments to fix the fundamentals, but if that’s happening, it’s not noticeable.

And that’s not the fault of the unvaccinated. That’s on the country’s leadership and how it has made deeply political, ideological decisions that have not built a sufficient system of care and comfort. Our aging demography does not suggest better outcomes are ahead, either.

And yes, it’s true, other countries are instituting their taxes: Austria and Greece are imposing them, and Singapore is billing unvaccinated patients for care. All sorts of fines exist abroad for refusing measles and other vaccines. What Quebec will find quickly, though, is that even if it links the tax to one’s income, an unintended consequence will be to hurt the province’s poorer.

Our provincial government likely tweaked to that with a natural reflex and was wise to quickly say the Quebec plan will not venture out to the coast. But Trudeau strangely didn’t rule it out instantly, which is worrisome, given that his father hand-crafted the charter.

The more libertarian among us fear the tax serves as the expected standard for later pandemics, and they have a point that this augmented political power is worrisome for its potential application.

The question then arises as to what constitutes a better approach, and on that matter, sorry, but we need to accept imperfection at the intersection of record case counts and an immovable one-tenth of the adult population.

Nudging might shave a few more from the unvaxxed and into a clinic, further denial of public privileges might prod a lineup to be jabbed for a day or two, pop-up sites could whittle away at the numbers. But in a certain sense, the spread of Omicron is doing a faster, more efficient job than any jab could in fulfilling the policy objective of a safer, more immune society. By the time this fifth or whatever wave has crested and collapsed, a significant chunk of the outliers will have gotten what they doubted a vaccine would prevent or was worth the risk.

Problem is, we are out of patience two years into this. A smarty-pants friend who has studied pandemics told me several months back that history has shown they have a six-year trajectory: two of the spread, two of occasional outbreaks, two of recovery. I try not to remember that.

The larger issue than the domestic spread is the global disparity of medical treatment, and our privilege confers a responsibility to bring along other countries and even continents with a supply of vaccine. Our other responsibility is to generate the resources to build a system that will not falter when this happens again.

The Quebec premier has done a very good job of taking attention away from his own responsibilities. You shouldn’t turn to taxes to solve your problems.

Justin, fix your own house first. As your father said, the state has no place in ours. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.