Politicizing COVID-19 vaccine mandates could backfire, experts warn

WATCH: Poll shows most Canadians support COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Standing in front of a crowd of reporters on Friday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau once again shared his position on a vaccine mandate — and slammed the Conservatives for theirs.

“Scrapping our commitment to make sure everyone on a plane or train is vaccinated, it’s not just irresponsible — that’s dangerous,” Trudeau said.

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The Conservatives have said they’d still require unvaccinated Canadian passengers to take or present a COVID-19 test before boarding planes and trains.

Still, the partisan jab was just one of many that have been exchanged over the question of whether to impose a vaccine mandate, which is increasingly becoming a wedge issue in the federal election campaign.

While an important subject, some experts are warning that vaccine uptake could become a casualty of the increasingly politicized question of a vaccine mandate.

“A vaccine mandate, something that requires you (to be vaccinated) for a job that you’re currently in or an activity that’s currently really important to you, those are those are more difficult and more threatening to people,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist and director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“You run the risk, sometimes, of people’s attitudes hardening a little bit. And I think you’re watching a bit of that in the election campaign.”

The debate about whether to mandate vaccines gathered momentum after the government announced it would make vaccines mandatory for all workers in the federal sector by fall. The mandate also extends to travellers on commercial flights, as well as interprovincial trains and cruises.

Days after the announcement, Trudeau launched the country into a federal election — and the vaccine mandate became a key promise from his party.

Expert reaction was mixed, ranging from opposition to embrace. But for many, questions emerged about whether such a policy is even possible.

In some spaces, decision-makers are already running into brick walls that were built by the politicization of vaccine responses — walls that they worry might also become a problem for the implementation of a vaccine mandate, too.

In conversations with leaders in Calgary this week, emergency room physician Dr. Joe Vipond said he realized that the city councillors just “don’t have the numbers to pass a mask mandate.”

“I don’t understand… it’s worse now than it was in July of last year when we passed a mask mandate,” Vipond said.

“What’s the difference? I think the only difference is that our…provincial political leaders have said, ‘no, this isn’t acceptable.'”

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Even if there’s the political will to go ahead with a vaccine mandate, it can also get tricky from a legal perspective.

Employers can’t just decide to fire you for any reason — and that’s a right given to “most provincially regulated employees and nonunionized employees,” according to Hermie Abraham, an employment lawyer and the owner of Advocation Professional Corporation.

But that right doesn’t exist under federal laws, she warned.

“And so the issue with these mandatory vaccine policies is, if somebody chooses to not be vaccinated or not show proof of vaccination status, then do they risk losing their job or do they risk…having some kind of discipline measured against them, because of their jobs? And that’s where the law isn’t clear,” Abraham said.

When it comes to travel, though, things are a bit more clear. Airports already put a number of conditions on travel, such as how much liquid can be carried on board and what you can bring on a flight. Those conditions pave a more clear pathway to mandatory vaccination, Abraham said.

“There are rules that come into play with travel that we just have to kind of get behind, whether we like it or not, because of either federal and also international standards,” she said.

“I think that there’s probably a lot more leeway.”

Still, the potential policy is already proving to be a source of concern for many Canadians, Abraham said.

“I’m getting a lot more calls from employees who are just wondering whether employers are allowed to do this.”

Most Canadians have jumped at the chance to get their COVID-19 vaccine. Over 80 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older have received a COVID-19 vaccine — and recent polling suggest a majority of Canadians are also in favour of a vaccine mandate.

Just over 80 per cent of respondents told Ipsos that requiring proof of vaccination for train or air travellers was a good idea, according to a recent poll conducted exclusively for Global News.

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Still, turning the question of mandatory vaccination into a wedge issue “may rub people the wrong way,” warned Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist with the University of Toronto.

“They may perceive a lack of sincerity in what the leaders are saying, and they may see this as simply (a means of) political gain. And people see political gain as selfish gain,” Bowman said.

“And so it may really dilute kind of the moral need for this, or people’s perception of the moral need. And I worry about that.”

While Bowman himself is a strong proponent of eligible Canadians getting their jabs, he warned that those who aren’t vaccine-hesitant don’t necessarily see vaccination as a “monstrous” thing.

Some people, he said, “just don’t feel ready” — and further politicizing the issue of vaccine mandates “may push people further away,” he warned.

Still, there are ethical considerations at play when it comes to pursuing a vaccine mandate, Bowman warned.

“There are lots of ethical problems, but I also can see that we’re in a crisis. I think that the Delta variant has moved the goalposts and I accept that, as most Canadians do,” Bowman said.

“But we have to be relatively cautious about this. In the weeks and months ahead, we’re laying down infrastructure all over the country to identify and, potentially, divide people. I hope we know what we’re doing, and I fear it could have long term implications.”

Regardless, both O’Toole and Trudeau have held firm in their party’s respective stances. Trudeau doubled down on his support for mandatory vaccines on Friday when pressed on the issue by reporters.

“In a global pandemic, Canada can’t afford the Conservative Party’s approach that denies science and peddles disinformation to the public on health measures. And let’s not even get started on vaccines,” he said.

He went on to slam the Tories for their plan to scrap the Liberal commitment to require vaccination on planes and trains, calling it “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

“Vaccines are not a political issue. To try and make them one is dangerous and irresponsible,” O’Toole fired out in his own statement, which highlighted rapid tests as an alternative to mandating vaccines, which he opposes.

“Now is the time to work together. I will always support a reasonable and balanced approach to getting us back to normal.”

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Here’s where the major party leaders stand on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, stands firmly in favour of a vaccine mandate for federal workers — though he has criticized Trudeau for a lack of details in his plan.

Singh has also called for domestic vaccine passports and mandatory vaccine rules to be in place by Labour Day.

“Canadian families should be able to access vaccine passports as easily as possible. And they should be able to use them here at home — not just when travelling internationally,” he said in a statement.

— with files from Reuters

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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