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Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to a question during a news conference in Montreal on Jan. 11.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

“Tax the unvaxxed” has a nice ring to it.

But as tempting as it to impose a financial penalty on unvaccinated members of society, Quebec’s plan to demand an additional “health contribution” from those who have not yet received a COVID-19 jab misses the mark.

There’s a fine line between incentivizing and punishing, and this time Premier François Legault has crossed it.

About 90 per cent of Quebeckers have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and the two-dose number is not far behind. One year after the largest mass vaccination campaign in Canada’s history began, there remains a very small number of holdouts.

The 10 per cent of unvaccinated citizens angers us, individually and collectively. It infuriates us, it costs us and it harms us, especially that the unvaccinated are principally the ones filling hospital beds, and critical care beds in particular, and causing collateral damage such as delays in surgery.

It is perfectly acceptable – necessary, even – to keep “turning the screws” on the unvaccinated (to use Mr. Legault’s phraseology).

But the fact remains that people have a right to refuse vaccination. Even anti-social, obnoxious, misinformed and ignorant people have rights.

And by the way, we actually have very little concrete information on who exactly the unvaccinated are. There is the tiny, loud minority of vaccine deniers, of course. But there are also a lot of misguided people who are victims of misinformation, frightened and facing practical barriers to accessing vaccines. There are those with well-justified historic mistrust in the system. The unvaccinated are not all “bad,” selfish or ill-intentioned people.

We can, nonetheless, use laws, regulations and peer pressure to limit the damage the unvaccinated do to others, knowingly or otherwise. We can legislate vaccine mandates with teeth. We can limit the public movements, the freedoms, of the unvaccinated.

People who refuse vaccination, in some cases, risk losing their jobs and having their travel options and social lives markedly curtailed.

We can use tools such as vaccine passports to deny entry to restaurants, sporting events and liquor and cannabis stores (as Quebec announced recently, spurring a nice little spike in first-dose vaccinations). Mr. Legault spoke of extending the passport restrictions further, to shopping malls and personal-care salons, which makes sense.

We can do all this, and more, and still respect people’s rights. The goal is to incentivize vaccination; the corollary is to reward the vaccinated with more privileges.

Public-health measures need to be targeted and direct. There has to be an immediate impact felt – like being turned away from a restaurant or liquor store for lack of a vaccine passport.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. Denying health care to the unvaccinated or making them pay for health services others get for “free,” is wrong-headed.

In a public-health regime, patients must be treated based on medical needs. Period. There is no room for moralistic judgment or financial penalties. You don’t abandon your principles because somebody’s actions (or inaction) irks you.

Taxing the unvaccinated could be an incentive for them to get the jab. But it’s vague and inequitable.

Quebec’s plan, unveiled Tuesday, lacked any detail. It reeks of improvisation and desperate deflection for other failings.

Mr. Legault said the tax would be “substantial,” later adding that it would be more than $100. But it’s not clear if that would be a one-time penalty, when it would be applied and to whom. Do you get taxed if you’ve had no shots, or just one shot, or is there a sliding scale?

A $100 fine isn’t going to dissuade zealots; if anything, it may embolden them. But it will hurt the poorest – those who already face access barriers and likely have the most reasonable explanations for not being vaccinated – a lot. It misses the mark horribly.

Besides, the purpose of taxation is to raise funds for collective endeavours, be it funding medicare, building roads or supporting pandemic-relief programs.

Taxes should not be seen as a punishment.

So, no, we shouldn’t tax the unvaxxed. We should continue to positively promote vaccination, make it more accessible and, when need be, make life a little more miserable for the unvaccinated and a lot better for the vaccinated.

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