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Raymond J. de Souza: Justin Trudeau's 'punitive' vaccine mandate

The government is not worried about the charter; it just wants everyone to know that punishment is on the way

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KINGSTON, ONT. — Are vaccine mandates prophylactic or punitive? In my previous column about vaccine passports, I noted that, even while introducing them, Ontario Premier Doug Ford recognized that there was something off-putting in a liberal democratic state about the citizenry having the show their papers. He put it squarely in the category of a necessary evil.

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There is something rather different in the air now, with the federal government announcing that its employees must be vaccinated as a condition of employment — even those who work from home, which is a great number of them at the moment.

That’s not about public health, like permitting restaurants to open up fully if the patrons are vaccinated. This is about introducing punitive measures — dismissal from employment is threatened — aimed at getting people to accept a, albeit modest, medical intervention that they do not wish to accept.

The bar for that has to be very high. It has to be a necessary prophylaxis against an urgent threat.

Vaccines are one of the great boons of modern medicine. In this case, a small minority have objections. But Canada is not a vaccine hesitant, let alone resistant, country. We have, along with Spain, the highest vaccination rate of any country on the planet with a population of over 30 million.

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Is it thus necessary to denounce, even demonize, the unvaccinated, by conjuring ways to make their lives more difficult? Vaccine mandates should be driven by prophylactic criteria. Blanket measures of a punitive nature, with no adjustment to circumstances or local conditions, are not about public health but political punishment.

Vaccine mandates are a justified tool where there is a demonstrable need and benefit, but it has to be demonstrable, not merely asserted. At Queen’s University, where I work, everyone on campus is required to be vaccinated. That measure permits the suspension of social distancing, which allows classes to go ahead in-person, which I greatly prefer. The added prophylaxis permits personal contact.

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For those who cannot, or will not, be vaccinated, there are accommodations for remote work and learning. It’s the coming to campus and being in close quarters that requires vaccination, not simply being on staff or a student.

But to suspend or fire employees who work from home? A vaccine mandate ought to be related to an activity that is facilitated by it. There is a reasonable link between vaccination and operating a dining room at near capacity. But if proof of vaccination was required at the drive-through, or for take-out, that would be nonsensical.

On Thursday, two headlines appeared in the same edition of the Kingston Whig-Standard. Fifty-Nine Kingston Health Sciences Centre Staff Placed On Indefinite Unpaid Leave, was about the approximately one per cent of staff who are not vaccinated. The other headline was about the state of the pandemic locally: Public Health Reports One New Case Of COVID-19.

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As of Thursday afternoon, there were twice as many staff on layoff from Kingston, Ont., hospitals as there were COVID cases in our health region; 59 times as many laid off as the sole COVID patient in hospital. There are 10 times as many staff on layoff as the total number of coronavirus deaths during the entire pandemic, which is six in our region.

Is that a carefully targeted prophylactic mandate? Or it is using blunt instruments to batter those who dissent?

Emergencies call for emergency measures. Fair enough, but emergency measures have to be carefully tailored and be, by nature, temporary. Dismissal from the public service — when most of it is working from home — does not meet that test.

Emergency measures, such as layoffs in hospitals — where 99 per cent of staff are vaccinated and there is one COVID patient — cannot be considered a “reasonable limit … demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

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That quaint phrasing is from our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s in Section 1, actually, right at the top.

The federal public service mandate will take effect 40 years, nearly to the day, after former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the premiers hammered out the charter in the November 1981 first ministers’ meeting at the old Ottawa railway station.

When asked about what accommodations there will be for those who have medical reasons not to be vaccinated, or conscience objections, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the process for those people would be “onerous.” That gives the game away: it’s designed to be punitive, not prophylactic.

One imagines a directive going out that the usually user-friendly standards employed by government bureaucracy are to be suspended. Make it as difficult as possible!

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It’s hard to see how the prime minister’s heavy-handed approach will survive discussions with the public-sector unions, to say nothing of a constitutional challenge. Courts are reluctant to endorse making the exercise of charter rights “onerous.” But the government is not worried about the charter; it just wants everyone to know that punishment is on the way.

National Post

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