As I write this, some six million people in Canada — close to 20 per cent of us — have not received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Recently, I drove past a plaza full of anti-vaxxers partying in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery: unmasked, singing, dancing close together, screaming and hectoring random passers-by. I saw people hastily crossing streets to get away from them, pulling on masks, as the lone cop car covering this demonstration sat silently parked on the corner.
Friends in Toronto tell me about the weekly anti-vaxxer parties downtown.
There are some people for whom vaccination — even in Canada — is hard to access because of where they live or the work they do or because they are afraid about their status. I have all the sympathy in the world for them: it is our job — collectively, all of our work; specifically, the work of public health — to deal with these very real issues of access. In particular, we need to ensure that every frontline worker has paid time to go get vaccinated and to recover from any side effects. And that this leave is universal and easy to access.
I Have Heard the Excuses
But I am at the end of my patience with the vaccine-hesitant and the vaccine-resistant. I have heard the excuses and the stories: people who don’t know what’s in the vaccine (as though they know what is in every other thing they consume); people who don’t believe it’s safe (since they are all more qualified to make this decision than the countless scientists, researchers and public health officials on the case); those who question big government and Bill Gates (that last one I get, but the notion that he is somehow in cahoots to vaccinate and track everyone would be laughable — if people didn’t actually believe it to be true); and those who underplay the severity of COVID while overplaying the severity of reactions to the vaccines (globally, we have surpassed four million deaths; and while every severe reaction, especially death from a vaccine, is horrible, the death rate from COVID eclipses these numbers by magnitudes).
Individual choice is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society; I understand the visceral notion that your body is yours and you alone may decide what to do with it, but all choices are not made in isolation. We live in community, we form societies, we have responsibilities to each other. We do not live alone in our own bubbles. The last 17 months have shown that it is *possible* to survive without other human contact — think of the residents in long-term care who spent months locked in their own rooms so they were shielded from this virus. But the truth is that few people who were without human contact thrived. We are herd animals; we crave company and connection. The collective is always more powerful together than apart. I applaud the valiant efforts to create online communities and virtual mutual aid, but they lack the tangibility of touch and feel.
To choose to be unvaccinated is to delude yourself about your culpability in potentially getting COVID-19 and then passing it on to someone else, especially someone who may not be able to be vaccinated — a child under 12, say, or someone whose immune system is already ravaged by disease. In Canada, where vaccination is widely and freely available now, those showing up in hospitals and ICU wards are predominantly the unvaccinated. Yes, the vaccinated may transmit the virus and some of us do end up in hospital but the chances of both are far, far, far lower.
Our Collective Good is Under Stress
Our public health system is once again under stress because of those choosing to remain unvaccinated. More horrifying is that almost certainly the next variants of COVID-19 are mutating within unvaccinated populations, potentially throwing into jeopardy our entire public health response to the pandemic, and eventually leading to one of these variants escaping the vaccines we currently have.
That this is trotted out as something as innocuous as choice in Western democracies is staggering when I look at the global data about the lack of access to vaccines. The desperation of so many Global South nations is heartbreaking — especially when Canada has bought up 10 doses for every single one of us. I cannot imagine the arrogance of those who will let vaccines expire on shelves here.
To choose to remain unvaccinated without a compelling medical reason, at this time, is the most selfish choice to make. And, as ever, choices have consequences; but this particular choice will have consequences not just for those who make it, but for all of us. To choose to remain unvaccinated will harm the most vulnerable people in our societies — the elderly, those who are medically fragile, children under 12 years old, and those who live in countries without robust access to vaccines.
I couldn’t wait to be vaccinated — for my own mental health, for the semblance of normal human contact it would allow me to have. But I am so profoundly grateful for all those others who went out and got themselves vaccinated because that is what allows us this collective possibility of a new normal. To be vaccinated is the most profound act of solidarity and love that we can now offer each other.
Archana Rampure lives in this land we call Canada.