Canadians went through a weird period of longing last fall and winter as we watched Australia successfully implement a COVID-zero containment strategy. While we hunkered down in our homes and absorbed ever-worsening news of community spread, life in Australia carried on largely as normal, which inspired many Canadians – researchers, doctors, epidemiologists and others – to push for a COVID-zero strategy of our own.
It would have been logistically impossible to replicate what Australia had done, of course, namely because Canada shares a massive land border with the United States and it relies on daily shipments of goods across that border to keep the country running. But beyond the technical challenges, it was fascinating to observe the apparent nonchalance COVID-zero advocates had for the extreme and rather oppressive methods Australia used to keep COVID-19 at bay.
Australian citizens abroad were not permitted to return to their own country as authorities maintained a strict quota system that only allowed a limited number of people to fly in each week. In an effort to contain an outbreak in Melbourne, thousands of people in nine public-housing buildings were essentially locked in their homes for five days – their buildings surrounded by police – without sufficient prior warning to pick up food and other essentials. During one lockdown in South Australia in November, people were not even permitted to take their dogs out on walks.
Extraordinary circumstances might merit exceptional policies, but there is a danger in yielding so much to the notion that the ends justify the means that fundamental principles are lost in the process. Take the seeming endorsement some Canadians have expressed recently for the policy soon to be adopted by Singapore, whereby those who are “unvaccinated by choice” will not have their medical bills for COVID-19 treatment covered by the government (though private insurers may still cover the cost). Singapore’s vaccination rate is extremely high – roughly 85 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated – but its health care system is nevertheless feeling the strain of unvaccinated cases ending up in hospital. So in an effort to encourage its remaining holdouts to receive the shot, Singapore will begin charging unvaccinated COVID-19 patients as of Dec. 8.
Vaccinated Canadians watching from across the North Pacific might hope, in vain, that authorities here might adopt something similar. But our universal health care system does not discriminate based on personal behaviour – everyone gets the same treatment (theoretically, that is) whether they smoke cigarettes, or wear their seatbelt, or get injured while committing a crime, or choose to take the medicine as prescribed by their doctors. Some might argue that a pandemic is a good reason to temporarily change the rules, but to abandon one of the fundamental tenets of our health care system now is to create a precedent to abandon it during any future episodes of strain.
The same argument holds against adopting an extreme lockdown of the unvaccinated akin to what has recently been implemented in Austria. Austria is in a very different situation from Singapore – its vaccination numbers are low (roughly 65 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated), and new daily infections have recently reached record highs. In response, Austria has instituted a nationwide lockdown whereby those who are unvaccinated may only leave home for limited reasons, including work, school and to buy food. Police are permitted to conduct spot checks and will fine those who cannot offer proof of vaccination.
When Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced back in the spring that police were going to randomly stop people to check if they were going out for “essential” purposes, many were aghast – and rightfully so (the Premier walked back the announcement not 24 hours later). To allow police to stop and question anyone, at any time, is to grant police unchecked and unjustified power (which tends to negatively effect minority communities), and would constitute a major infringement on individual rights in a free society. And while those who oppose vaccine mandates might argue that we are already living in something of a police state, I’d posit that there is a pretty major difference between having to show a QR code to eat a plate of carbonara in a Boston Pizza, and being stopped randomly by police on the street to see if you have left your home for an unsanctioned reason.
The frustration with those who continue to refuse vaccination and extend the duration of this pandemic is real. But the answer is not to resort to such coercive, anti-democratic measures that we lose sight of – and compromise on – our most basic fundamental principles. Canada has used both carrots and sticks to get people to follow public-health instructions. While other countries might use tasers, it’s not something we should hope to emulate.
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