Few appre­cia­te that the appro­val the vac­ci­nes enjoy has been gran­ted on an emer­gen­cy basis only

By James Bryson

Hum­boldt Fellow
Ludwig Maxi­mi­lian Uni­ver­si­ty of Munich
It’s a well-known say­ing and a gene­ral­ly accep­ted truth that power cor­rupts and that abso­lu­te power cor­rupts abso­lu­te­ly. There’s much less con­sen­sus, howe­ver, abo­ut what abso­lu­te power looks like. How do we know the dif­fe­ren­ce betwe­en legi­ti­ma­te power and when a per­son or insti­tu­tion has too much and must be resisted?

The dra­co­nian lock­down poli­cies of the Libe­ral govern­ment of Nova Sco­tia have long sin­ce cros­sed the Rubi­con into autho­ri­ta­ria­nism, but the­ir recent cam­pa­ign pro­mi­se to insti­tu­te a vac­ci­ne pass, restric­ting access to public pla­ces on the basis of vac­ci­ne sta­tus, is a cle­ar sign that now the­re must be resistance.

The much-vaun­ted World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) has expres­sed its oppo­si­tion to vac­ci­ne man­da­tes on the gro­unds that the­se would discri­mi­na­te on the basis of vac­ci­ne access. Quite so. But the­re are other reasons, too.

Con­si­der, for the moment, the com­mon sen­se of Pri­me Mini­ster Justin Tru­de­au on the sub­ject of vac­ci­ne pas­sports last January.

“The­re are a bro­ad ran­ge of reasons why some­one might not get vac­ci­na­ted and I’m wor­ried abo­ut cre­ating knock-on, unde­si­ra­ble effects in our com­mu­ni­ty,” Tru­de­au said.
“The indi­ca­tions that the vast majo­ri­ty of Cana­dians are looking to get vac­ci­na­ted will get us to a good pla­ce witho­ut having to take more extre­me measu­res that could have real divi­si­ve impacts on com­mu­ni­ty and coun­try,” he added wisely.

Assu­ming for the moment the safe­ty and effec­ti­ve­ness of the vac­ci­nes as many or per­haps even most do, one may still sym­pa­thi­ze with the con­cerns of tho­se reluc­tant to line up for the­se con­tro­ver­sial jabs.

They have yet to rece­ive the stamp of appro­val from major regu­la­to­ry bodies like the Ame­ri­can Food and Drug Admi­ni­stra­tion that’s requ­ired for any drug to reach the mar­ket under ordi­na­ry cir­cum­stan­ces. Savvy citi­zens have noti­ced that the reports to the Vac­ci­ne Adver­se Event Repor­ting Sys­tem (VAERS) in the Uni­ted Sta­tes are off the charts, and they also know that under nor­mal cir­cum­stan­ces a drug trial is stop­ped after a thre­shold of dan­ge­ro­us side effects or deaths is cros­sed that the VAERS data would sug­gest has been long sin­ce exceeded.

And sure­ly inflam­ma­tion of the heart of other­wi­se heal­thy young people counts as a dan­ge­ro­us side effect?

Cau­tion is justi­fied all the more if citi­zens don’t fall into a risk gro­up, i.e. eve­ry heal­thy per­son under 50. Mem­bers of the heal­thy under-50 club, accor­ding to experts, have a bet­ter chan­ce of dying in an auto­mo­bi­le acci­dent; chil­dren are more like­ly to be struck by lightning.

Few seem to appre­cia­te that the appro­val the vac­ci­nes cur­ren­tly enjoy has been gran­ted on an emer­gen­cy basis only. This must be welco­me news for the vul­ne­ra­ble if the vac­ci­nes are as effec­ti­ve as they tell us. But the fact rema­ins that the­re have been no trials to deter­mi­ne long-term side effects – the­re can’t have been. On that basis alo­ne, an ordi­na­ry heal­thy per­son rema­ins per­fec­tly within the boun­da­ries of com­mon sen­se, to say nothing of his rights, to take a wait-and-see approach.

An abun­dan­ce of cau­tion, after all, has been the appro­ach public health offi­cials have coun­sel­led or enfor­ced at eve­ry turn: masks, social distan­ce, clo­sing pla­ces of busi­ness, scho­ols and wor­ship, bor­der clo­su­res, restric­tions on social gathe­rings, loved ones exc­lu­ded from hospi­tals and so on.

Cau­tion, cau­tion, caution.
Now, all of a sud­den, people are meant to throw cau­tion to the wind to take an expe­ri­men­tal vaccine?
This is mixed mes­sa­ging, to say the least.
The Nova Sco­tia govern­ment, for exam­ple, has fur­ther dimi­ni­shed its tru­stwor­thi­ness by ope­ra­ting a vac­ci­ne cam­pa­ign that never advi­ses indi­vi­du­als to weigh risks and bene­fits with the­ir per­so­nal phy­si­cian or loved ones befo­re taking the deci­sion to be vac­ci­na­ted, even tho­ugh this is the advi­ce you find on the fede­ral govern­ment website.
This prac­ti­ce, known as ‘infor­med con­sent,’ is one that any doctor will tell you is a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of medi­cal ethics. If govern­ments are not con­stra­ined by nor­ma­ti­ve ethi­cal prin­ci­ples when dispen­sing medi­cal advi­ce, inste­ad of pushing a one-size-fits-all appro­ach, on what basis do we owe them our unqu­estio­ning trust?
When some­one pro­po­ses to intro­du­ce radi­cal measu­res of some kind, the bur­den of pro­of falls on the­ir side of the argu­ment. No such bur­den has been met by the govern­ment of Nova Sco­tia, and govern­ments in other pro­vin­ces. Citi­zens weren’t con­sul­ted abo­ut lock­downs – a radi­cal step if the­re ever was one – and they’ve begun to noti­ce the dama­ge tho­se unde­mo­cra­tic poli­cies have done to chil­dren, shut-ins, busi­nesses, ove­rall mora­le, and to the health-care sec­tor itself.

When so much has been asked alre­ady, the law of dimi­ni­shing returns was bound to kick in at some point.

Some welco­me the vac­ci­ne pre­ci­se­ly as a pas­sport – a pas­sport out of lock­down. Others won­der why they sho­uld trust the judg­ment of a govern­ment that erred so badly in the­ir pro­po­sal and enfor­ce­ment of dra­co­nian lock­downs in the first place.
The­se reali­ties don’t seem to have been expres­sed by any of the poli­ti­cal class or in the media. Just the oppo­si­te. Many are so cer­ta­in that the unvac­ci­na­ted are irra­tio­nal, irre­spon­si­ble or both, that they’re pre­pa­red to vio­la­te the­ir civil rights and lega­li­ze discri­mi­na­to­ry poli­cy aga­inst them in the form of what Nova Sco­tia Pre­mier Iain Rankin’s new­spe­ak calls a “Sco­tia­Pass.”

Who­se coun­sel will he seek befo­re he imple­ments this unpre­ce­den­ted measure?
A who­le host of experts, sure­ly. Prie­sts and other reli­gio­us leaders, ethi­ci­sts, lawy­ers, human rights advo­ca­tes, social wor­kers, poli­ce, histo­rians, doctors across disci­pli­nes, an exter­nal ombud­sman enco­ura­ged to cri­ti­ci­ze fin­dings and so on. A refe­ren­dum will be cal­led to make sure the­re is a lar­ge consensus.

Here’s the stra­te­gy outli­ned by Ran­kin, quoted by CBC News:
“If we see a sur­ge in cases, we’ll do wha­te­ver we have to do to keep Nova Sco­tians safe,” said Ran­kin, adding that could mean for­cing people to use the Sco­tia­Pass sys­tem to access services.
“That would be in con­sul­ta­tion with [Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medi­cal offi­cer of health], looking at our epidemiology.”
They will seek the coun­sel of the chief medi­cal offi­cer. That’s it.
This is the same Strang who in June had the teme­ri­ty to justi­fy sup­por­ting an injunc­tion to pre­vent anti-lock­down pro­te­sts as a way of pre­ven­ting the spre­ad, not of the dise­ase but of “misin­for­ma­tion.”

This kind of reaso­ning is symp­to­ma­tic of a cre­eping autho­ri­ta­ria­nism in the deci­sions being taken by the Nova Sco­tia govern­ment under cover of Strang’s advi­ce. This is far too much power for one man to wield.

I voiced my oppo­si­tion to Rankin’s anno­un­ce­ment of the Sco­tia­Pass on his Twit­ter feed. No less than two people wished me dead and others liked this idea. One of my well-wishers attac­ked me for my Chri­stian faith which, in his view, made it impos­si­ble for me to have a cre­di­ble view on the subject.

The other gen­tle­man, who didn’t attack my faith, man­ful­ly apo­lo­gi­zed and dele­ted his twe­et after I appe­aled to the bet­ter angels of his natu­re. We’ve all said things in the heat of the moment we regret, and it’s much easier to yield to that temp­ta­tion when dealing with an ano­ny­mo­us per­son onli­ne. In what seemed a dark moment, here was a reason to hope that tho­se bet­ter angels will inde­ed prevail.

But this level of hosti­li­ty is the kind of envi­ron­ment the government’s actions have enco­ura­ged. Our respon­se to the pan­de­mic is expo­sing ugly fault lines in our socie­ty, making us suspi­cio­us of fami­ly, friends and neigh­bo­urs with whom we disa­gree. With the vac­ci­ne pass, they plan to ensh­ri­ne the­se divi­sions in law.

The govern­ment is cam­pa­igning on a poli­cy that will sin­gle out and vili­fy a huge seg­ment of the popu­la­tion for exer­ci­sing the­ir right to make the­ir own medi­cal cho­ices. This repre­sents the trans­i­tion from public sha­ming to outri­ght discri­mi­na­tion. Stu­dents of histo­ry will reco­gni­ze the pat­tern and shudder.

On Twit­ter, I was struck by how poor­ly infor­med and weak the argu­ments were defen­ding the pas­sport. Some cla­imed it was like a driver’s licen­ce, others that it was no dif­fe­rent to put­ting people in pri­son who had com­mit­ted a cri­me, others that it was like laws for­bid­ding smo­king in public pla­ces. Dra­wing com­pa­ri­sons of this kind shows how fuz­zy our thin­king has beco­me under the duress of lock­down culture.

The­re was also reason for hope. At the time of wri­ting, my twe­et had 280 likes. The twe­et that oppo­sed mine imme­dia­te­ly as a reply had only 40 or so. The feed­back in the feed is over­whel­min­gly aga­inst the pro­po­sed measu­res. Ano­ther straw poll of near­ly 2,500 Hali­go­nians sho­wed that over 75 per cent oppo­sed the idea of vac­ci­ne passports.
And yet, the pro­pa­gan­da con­ti­nu­es. The day after the govern­ment anno­un­ce­ment of vac­ci­ne pas­sports, a front-page artic­le in the Hali­fax Chro­nic­le Herald, rather than sim­ply repor­ting on the anno­un­ce­ment, had an opi­nion pie­ce loc­ked and loaded, quoting stran­gers at ran­dom who tho­ught the vac­ci­ne pas­sport would be a good idea. At no point does the artic­le say what tho­se survey­ed tho­ught a vac­ci­ne pas­sport was bey­ond some nebu­lo­us thing that will make people feel ‘safe.’

The pro­mi­se of safe­ty itself may be an illu­sion. We’re lear­ning more and more abo­ut how the­se vac­ci­nes don’t stop trans­mis­sion, as insti­tu­tions like the Ame­ri­can Cen­ter for Dise­ase Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) now admit. If that’s true, vac­ci­ne pas­sports will be giving the vac­ci­na­ted a fal­se sen­se of secu­ri­ty, to say the least. Conver­se­ly, if vac­ci­nes pro­tect them, what do they have to fear?

And if they’re sim­ply limi­ted to pla­ces like gyms and restau­rants and not, say, pla­ces of work, how effec­ti­ve will they real­ly be?

I’m in the gym for an hour; I’m at work all day. The highest vec­tor of trans­mis­sion is the house­hold – will we even­tu­al­ly need a pas­sport to go home?

One can’t help but think that now the vac­ci­ne rol­lo­ut has been so exten­si­ve, the govern­ment has iden­ti­fied what it thinks of as dan­ge­ro­us dis­si­dents in the ranks of the unvac­ci­na­ted. For what else can we sur­mi­se, now that the wis­dom of tho­se for­mer­ly reas­su­ring and reaso­na­ble words from the PM have been forgotten?

Vac­ci­ne pas­sports appe­ar to be an attempt to black­ma­il the hesi­tant into get­ting vac­ci­na­ted. The­ir pro­spect also seems to signal to the vac­ci­na­ted that the­ir com­plian­ce makes them, to crib Geo­r­ge Orwell, more equ­al than others. Not only will they have more pri­vi­le­ges than the­ir unvac­ci­na­ted coun­ter­parts, but they will also dese­rve them and may feel free to lord it over the less equ­al and sho­uld do – after all, it’s for the­ir own good.
This brings me to the third and final aspect of public health thin­king in Nova Sco­tia and else­whe­re that I would like to high­li­ght: chil­dren are being used as a means to exert emo­tio­nal leve­ra­ge over the vac­ci­ne-hesi­tant and mani­pu­la­te vac­ci­na­ted parents into sha­ming them.

At this point, the fear-mon­ge­ring rhe­to­ric that cla­ims vac­ci­na­tion will pro­tect our chil­dren sho­uld come as no sur­pri­se. This is the same govern­ment that clo­sed scho­ols witho­ut any evi­den­ce of dan­ge­ro­us spre­ad within them and issu­ed mask man­da­tes for chil­dren as young as four aga­inst WHO advice.

No child has died from COVID-19 in Cana­da witho­ut seve­re comor­bi­di­ties – the seaso­nal flu poses a gre­ater dan­ger – yet Strang has recen­tly cir­cu­la­ted a let­ter to parents urging eve­ry eli­gi­ble per­son to vac­ci­na­te them­se­lves in order to ‘pro­tect’ our children.

A par­ti­cu­lar­ly heart­bre­aking sto­ry out of Nova Sco­tia that attrac­ted natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal atten­tion was the death of 19-year-old Aca­dia kine­sio­lo­gy under­gra­du­ate Kai Mat­thews, an appa­rent vic­tim of what his parents have cal­led “Covid-blin­ders.” Kai died of menin­gi­tis B, tre­ata­ble with ear­ly inte­rven­tion, in lar­ge part becau­se he was tre­ated from the word go as a poten­tial COVID patient. By the time they got the dia­gno­sis right, it was too late.

When you hear his parents bra­ve­ly tell this sto­ry, exper­tly and sen­si­ti­ve­ly han­dled by Trish Wood on her bril­liant pod­cast, it’s very dif­fi­cult to belie­ve that he would have died had it not been for the hyper-focus of our health-care sys­tem on a virus that poses no dan­ger to a heal­thy young man like Kai.

If we don’t reject vac­ci­ne pas­sports, one won­ders how much fur­ther down the slip­pe­ry slo­pe we will sli­de? How much more needless dama­ge and divi­sion will our leaders cau­se? And what will they come up with next?

If you can for­ce people to take vac­ci­nes, why not for­ce them to dona­te blo­od? There’s vir­tu­al­ly no risk to the donor, it’s always urgent and would save many lives. The­re are a hun­dred such hypo­the­ti­cals in the offing if we allow govern­ments to lega­li­ze discri­mi­na­tion aga­inst the unvaccinated.

Discri­mi­na­tion can’t be the pri­ce of safe­ty. When tho­se in power begin to ‘explo­re’ vac­ci­ne pas­ses, justi­fy restric­tions on move­ment and spe­ech becau­se people might say some­thing they disa­gree with (aka ‘misin­for­ma­tion’), and explo­it our pro­tec­ti­ve instincts towards our chil­dren by drum­ming up unwar­ran­ted fear, we begin to see what abso­lu­te power looks like in the flesh. We start to appre­cia­te the sim­ple yet pro­fo­und truth of that pithy maxim that abso­lu­te power cor­rupts absolutely.

We sho­uld not put up with the lega­li­zed discri­mi­na­tion govern­ments are pro­po­sing. The autho­ri­ta­rians have over­play­ed the­ir hand. The mask is off. The rot has been expo­sed – I hope.

James Bry­son holds a PhD from Cam­brid­ge Uni­ver­si­ty, is a for­mer SSHRC post­doc­to­ral Fel­low and lec­tu­rer at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, a Rese­arch Asso­cia­te of the Cam­brid­ge Divi­ni­ty Facul­ty, and cur­ren­tly a Hum­boldt Fel­low at the Ludwig Maxi­mi­lian Uni­ver­si­ty of Munich.
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