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An anti-vaccine health care worker demonstrates as a vaccine supporter looks on in front of a hospital in Montreal on Sept. 13. The Quebec government was forced to backtrack Wednesday on its vaccine mandate for health care workers, saying the loss of unvaccinated employees would have a devastating effect on the system.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The so-called political leaders of Ontario and Quebec seem to have given up trying to fight the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that there would be no vaccine mandate for health workers in the province.

Almost simultaneously, Quebec Health and Social Services Minister Christian Dubé said that his once tough-sounding “no jab, no pay” edict, already delayed, was now being revoked.

Quebec’s decision to delay COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health workers is an insult to patient safety

Every health care worker needs to be vaccinated without exception – or find another job

In this country, we now find ourselves with premiers claiming they are powerless to act instead of actually acting. It’s a peculiar situation, where airlines are doing more to protect passengers from COVID-19 than governments are doing to shield patients in hospitals and long-term care homes.

(Air Canada has suspended 800 of its 27,000 employees for being unvaccinated and WestJet has done the same with 290 of its 7,300 workers who refused shots.)

Both Ontario and Quebec trotted out the same lame excuses: A mandate is unnecessary because lots of health care workers are already vaccinated, and suspending unvaccinated workers would cause massive staff shortages and hardship.

Never mind that those two arguments are largely contradictory. What matters here, as much as anything, is the symbolism.

By capitulating to a whiny minority of self-centered, ill-informed workers – the roughly 3 to 4 per cent who still refuse to be vaccinated – we are telling the large majority of dedicated, civic-minded workers that doing the right thing doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s an immense insult to health workers and even worse for patients, who face the prospect of being treated by unvaccinated workers at higher risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus than their vaccinated colleagues. Worse yet, governments continue to insist that patients and residents in hospitals, care homes and home care are not allowed to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t for reasons of “privacy.”

Ontario and Quebec could not have chosen a worse time to embolden the unvaccinated and other anti-social moaners, as we are on the cusp of launching the campaign to vaccinate children against COVID-19.

The only saving grace here is that the vast majority of health workers are responsible and behaving ethically by getting vaccinated. But why exactly are we kowtowing to a tiny minority of contrarians? Down the road this will cause far more problems that it prevents.

There are already mandatory vaccines for health workers, like hepatitis B. Can workers now refuse those shots? What about other safety measures? Can workers refuse to wear masks or wash their hands because it causes them some perceived harm or injustice?

Governments in Ontario and Quebec (and other provinces without vaccine mandates) seem to be suggesting that just about any repugnant behaviour can be excused because of the risk of staff shortages.

Make no mistake, the shortages of nurses, personal support workers and others in the health system are real. But those problems existed before COVID-19 and they will persist after the pandemic.

Governments need to get serious about dealing with health human resource issues and stop pretending that vaccine mandates are somehow to blame for long-standing systemic failings.

Yes, losing 5,000 health workers who deal directly with patients (out of 330,000), as Quebec may have done had it stuck to its Nov. 15 deadline, would have a bit of an impact. But are people who don’t believe in vaccination really fit to be health workers in the first place? It’s not enough to have warm bodies in our hospitals and nursing homes; we need quality care delivered by caring, ethical workers.

Besides, should we really believe that the worst-case scenarios being predicted would actually come to pass? Would tens of thousands of workers really give up good-paying unionized jobs with benefits instead of getting a vaccine?

The tale of New York’s police is telling. There were dire warnings that up to one-third of cops would leave the city’s force rather than get a COVID-19 shot. But New York’s leaders didn’t blink. In the end, only 34 of 35,000 police officers and 40 of 17,000 civilian employees gave up their jobs.

We likely would have seen the same sort of coming-to-their-senses behaviour had Ontario and Quebec been serious about their vaccine mandates.

Instead, we’ve seen a sickening display of spinelessness from political leaders, one that is contemptuous of the public, and that will ultimately make the health system weaker, not stronger.

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