Pregnant during the pandemic, Toronto psychiatrist Saadia Sediqzadah issued her family an ultimatum: Get vaccinated, or you won’t be able to hold the baby.
Dr. Sediqzadah, who gave birth to a boy on Sunday, conveyed her position to relatives through an Instagram post, softening the message with upbeat laughing emojis. She reiterated the request at her two virtual baby showers.
“Certain aunties and uncles who’ve decided not to vaccinate think I was joking, but I’m going to be cutthroat about it,” Dr. Sediqzadah said, adding that one aunt did get her shot partly so she could cradle the newborn safely.
Dr. Sediqzadah – who has been her family’s vaccination advocate, finding appointment slots and sharing public-health information through WhatsApp – isn’t concerned about offending anyone, instead pointing out her request was a positive way to motivate her family to get vaccinated. “It’s not personal,” she said. “I’m looking out for my child. Why would anyone want to give me a hard time?”
With vaccination rates climbing and restrictions lifting across the country, families are hoping to see more of each other this summer, celebrating long-missed milestones and the company of familiar faces.
For others, the summer reopening is breeding dread. In some families where relatives refuse to get vaccinated, navigating get-togethers has become complicated. As the highly transmissible Delta variant intensifies in Canada, there is worry for those who remain vulnerable in families – children too young for the shot, ill or immunocompromised relatives, and those still waiting for a second dose. Some families have refused to meet with unvaccinated relatives, drawing their ire. Others remain quiet, afraid to offend or risk losing child-care help from family.
Tension and resentment are mounting between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Some relatives are waiting to get the shot once they’re convinced it’s safe. Others flat out refuse, quoting misinformation to question vaccination science, or mistakenly playing down COVID-19 as a common flu. All are defying public-health pleas for every Canadian to get vaccinated to stop the cycle of transmission, beat back variants and end this plague for good. Their resistance has left some family members deeply disappointed in them, questioning why they won’t do their part in a crisis.
Mireille Huneault, 47, and her sister, Louise Sertsis, 45, watched their mother grow wary about the pandemic over the past year. After watching daily coverage about climbing cases and deaths through the first wave, their mother became angry about the virus and lingering lockdowns. Despite her daughters’ pleas, the senior still refuses to get vaccinated.
That decision caused a rift with Ms. Sertsis, who has multiple sclerosis and is immunocompromised. When Ms. Sertis got her shot, her mother warned she would get very sick. According to Ms. Huneault, it was an upsetting moment: a mother disregarding her daughter’s health to reinforce her own beliefs.
“The arguments persist and usually end up with someone being upset over the other’s insensitive comments,” said Ms. Huneault, a mental-health educator in Oshawa, Ont.
The vaccination divide gets particularly heated between spouses living under one roof. Montreal psychotherapist Andrew Sofin recently counselled a married couple fighting about the vaccine. The husband got his shot right away, but the wife was reticent: “She went down the misinformation rabbit hole,” said Mr. Sofin, president of the Canadian Association for Marriage & Family Therapy.
The wife’s refusal distressed her husband, who felt betrayed that she would choose dubious information over the health of their family, which includes a daughter with asthma. “You could see the partner starting to get angry,” Mr. Sofin said.
Mr. Sofin helped the couple go through the wife’s concerns systematically, calmly laying out the possible consequences of her inaction. Eventually, she changed her mind.
Mr. Sofin urges couples and other family members who find themselves at odds to try and take the temperature down, noting that this type of difficult conversation is most effective when it comes from a place of empathy and compassion. He also suggests printing out the latest reputable health guidance and laying it out on the table. “Have a conversation – don’t just yell at each other. Also say, ‘What kind of example are we setting for our kids?’”
Mr. Sofin sees the pandemic testing spouses who assumed they shared common values and beliefs. “It’s a real unusual test because it’s bringing something up in people that you wouldn’t have known otherwise,” he said. “You see your partner in a different light.”
Tension over vaccination is escalating between friends, too. Patrick Durieu, a 44-year-old logistics manager in Toronto, is worried for his best friend, a partly vaccinated teacher who is contemplating a group trip this summer. Joining in is a relative who has refused the vaccine – a “COVID epidemic denier,” as Mr. Durieu puts it.
Mr. Durieu urged his friend to reconsider the outing. “I said to him, ‘Don’t go – or don’t let this guy go,’” he recalled.
Mr. Durieu has received one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine so far. He said he will be more cautious about hanging out with his friend after his dicey holiday. Still, he has empathy for him: “He’s surrounded by a percentage of naysayers and some of these are good friends or co-workers. That can’t be easy to navigate.”
Those who question their unvaccinated family and friends often face judgment themselves: Why are they micromanaging the choices of others? And why do they care, if they’re already vaccinated themselves?
“It puts everyone in an uncomfortable position,” said Denise Kalwajtys, who is dealing with some of these questions as she plans an outdoor party on her acreage for her father’s 80th birthday this August.
Ahead of the party, Ms. Kalwajtys texted guests her strict ground rules: No vaccine, no attendance. As the host, she does not want to risk anyone getting sick. Two young grandchildren are not eligible for the vaccine yet. And though her father, the guest of honour, is fully vaccinated, he was recently diagnosed with blood cancer.
“My dad, even if he were to get a mild version of COVID, who knows what it would do to him?” said Ms. Kalwajtys, a 55-year-old administrative assistant in Sherwood Park, Alta.
Two relatives on the guest list have chosen not to get vaccinated. One is waiting “to see how it goes for other people first,” Ms. Kalwajtys said; the other is refusing outright, having immersed himself in podcasts peddling misinformation.
Ms. Kalwajtys does not relish disinviting the unvaccinated relatives, who would miss a family portrait scheduled for the festivities. She realizes their absence will hurt her father. Even her parents have questioned her vigilance: “I’ve gotten, ‘If 95 per cent of us are vaccinated, then why do you care if two people aren’t?’” she said.
“It makes me angry that I’m being put in this position of the family ‘bad guy,’ the enforcer of this vaccine battle.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Kalwajtys isn’t taking any chances.
“In an environment where I have some control, I will do my best to protect the people I care about,” she said. “This is such a small thing to do for the good of our family.”
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