Pandemic Fight Requires Unity, Not Division

As Canada and the world continue to navigate the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic, the push for mandatory vaccinations has become central to the discourse on how to stop the virus. The health risks from COVID-19 remain high among the unvaccinated and immunocompromised.  Vaccines are showing to be the best, safest, and lowest cost method to prevent severe COVID-19 cases, lockdowns, and further restrictions. I strongly encourage everyone who wants to get vaccinated to do so at your earliest convenience.

However, we should also appreciate that the decision to take any vaccine is a personal choice. Choosing not to receive any type of medical treatment is something that need not be explained to anyone, much less our country’s government.  As strongly as I support the use of vaccines in our fight against COVID-19, I am as equally opposed to coerced vaccinations. Canadians can reason and make the best heath decisions for themselves and their families with help and guidance from their personal healthcare professionals.

The introduction of mandatory vaccines is a drastic and unprecedented shift in Canada’s public policy.  Politicizing vaccines is a dangerous and irresponsible scare tactic that may instead push people away from vaccines. Now is not the time to pit Canadians against each other as fear and division will not help get us past this pandemic.

It has been disheartening and alarming to see mandatory vaccinations being pushed on a population under duress. Instead of using persuasion and reason to convince individuals to become fully vaccinated, governments have resorted to coercion. Coercion includes the compelling of someone to act in an involuntary manner by use of threats, backed up with power. 

Canadians are being threatened with loss of employment, the inability to watch their kids play sports and denial of services or entry into certain establishments if they do not comply with vaccine mandates. It’s like the federal government is looking for scapegoats for their own pandemic failures and our society is becoming more and more divided as a result.  

Many assumptions have been made about the relatively small percentage of Canadians who remain unvaccinated. They have been labelled all sorts of derogatory terms and presumed to be ignorant, selfish, threats to society and ‘anti-vaxxers’ (i.e., against all vaccines when actually not). They have even been singled out by the Prime Minister as “those people.” Although there are likely some in this group who hold extreme or irrational views, I do not believe that is the case for the majority, nor do I think it justifies ill treatment or coerced injections. Some are legitimately scared, confused and distrusting of government. 

As our Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said, many Canadians who are vaccine hesitant have serious and legitimate questions. We should be trying to provide answers to those questions, not ignoring them and using coercion to achieve higher vaccination rates.

To override the concerns that Canadians have and force them to do something under threat of punishment is not only inappropriate and disrespectful, but also completely incompatible with a free and democratic society. As retired Canadian philosopher Dr. Hendrik van der Breggen so powerfully put it, “In a free and open society, differences of view and debates should be encouraged to flourish, so if a view is correct then knowing that it’s correct will help the rest of us, and if it’s incorrect then that knowledge will also help the rest of us. If we allow debates and open inquiry to flourish, then truth instead of mere power will prevail—and, as a bonus, conspiracy theories will tend to die off instead of being reinforced.” 

We should be very cautious about looking to the government to impose its will, or our will, onto our fellow Canadians. Freedom is costly and it’s messy. It allows for others to do and say things you don’t like, but the alternative is tyranny. For government arbitrarily to control a population’s behavior and speech through force is a risky route to take because there is no guarantee that those dictating and enforcing the latest restrictions will remain on your side.

C.S. Lewis rightly warned, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity [greed] may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” 

Men and women have given their lives in defense of the rights and freedoms we hold in such high regard and which are the very stabilizers of our democracy. It is incumbent upon us as beneficiaries of their sacrifices to preserve and defend these values for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

There will always be an excuse to infringe on the freedoms guaranteed under the Charter, especially when arguments for health and safety are invoked, but we must be steadfast in our resolve to protect those freedoms to the greatest extent possible. They are more fragile and under threat than you might think.

With great foresight, John Diefenbaker declared, “We must vigilantly stand on guard within our own borders for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are our proud heritage…we cannot take for granted the continuance and maintenance of those rights and freedoms.”

In a diverse society where people have different views and opinions, there will always be the desire to impose one’s will onto one’s neighbours, but we must resist the temptation to use coercion. Instead of coercion, we must use the tools of persuasion, discussion, reason, and education – and redirect wasteful spending toward needed medical care for all. The price we pay for living in a free country is that people will choose to live their lives differently. That must be allowed to continue to be okay, even in the midst of a pandemic.

In the coming months, there will be challenges but also opportunities before us.  We can allow seeds of division, fear, confusion, and coercion to fester and tear us apart, or we can choose to take opportunities to unite and stand together as fellow Canadians to fight the pandemic, not each other.

I would like to thank my friends, Hendrik van der Breggen Ph.D. and Sarah Fischer for sharing their thoughts and providing inspiration and encouragement for this article.