By Martin Regg CohnPolitical Columnist
Wed., July 14, 2021timer4 min. read
updateArticle was updated 1 hr ago
Here’s a pandemic puzzle:
If you work with kids in child care, “staff are required to be vaccinated” for hepatitis, measles and tetanus, among other diseases — on the authority of Toronto’s medical officer of health.
But if you work with far more vulnerable seniors in long-term care, no need to inoculate yourself — nor insulate everyone else — by taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
Here’s another COVID-19 conundrum:
If you’re a nurse working in one of the University Health Network hospitals, you must show proof of the measles, mumps and rubella shot. But not the COVID-19 jab.
Can anyone explain the logic of requiring staff to do the right thing for diseases that are largely under control, while allowing staff to do as they please in mid-pandemic? Why is a measles shot mandatory but COVID-19 protection is optional — while recurring outbreaks risk the lives of vulnerable patients in hospitals and nursing homes?
The above examples are a reminder that we have not hesitated before to require immunization of custodial staff, just as we demand vaccination of students in primary schools. We recognize no liberties are inviolable if they violate the lives of others.
Hospitals across the U.S. are now requiring staff to get vaccinated in order to safeguard the patients they were hired to protect. American courts have endorsed those decisions, rejecting the claims of entitled employees that their right to do wrong remains unrestrained.
To be clear, no one is forcing anyone to get jabbed. But unvaccinated health-care workers forcing themselves upon vulnerable patients violate their own moral code to do no harm.
Fidelity to patients comes before loyalty to employees. Health and safety trumps job security.
Yet a significant and stubborn minority of these workers are still not fully vaccinated — as many as 30 per cent in major hospitals, though we still have no reliable data. Roughly one in 10 long-term care workers has not received a single shot.
This isn’t a matter of personal freedom but political paralysis. French President Emmanuel Macron, mindful of the peril in a pandemic, announced this week that health-care workers must show proof of vaccination by mid-September or look for work elsewhere.
How best to deal with vaccine hesitancy here at home?
So far, the response to individual hesitancy has been institutional helplessness and political ambivalence. Our high-priced hospital executives have gone silent and our politicians are ducking for cover.
Even the most putatively progressive union leaders, who should be leading the way in health and safety, are talking out of both sides of their mouths. They pay lip service to vaccines yet dare not offend vocal anti-vaxx members.
Canadians love to coddle and dawdle. Ontario has ordered long-term-care homes to provide data on staff vaccinations and offer educational videos for those who refuse, but nothing more — and nothing at all for hospital staff.
People speculate on the root causes of vaccine hesitancy, rather than focusing on the resulting impacts of anti-vaxx recklessness. Sympathy is extended to ambivalent workers, instead of empathy for vulnerable patients exposed to the virus.
The temptation is to treat workers as victims rather than victimizers, as people fearing power rather than wielding authority over hospital patients and nursing-home residents under their care. Imagine closing our eyes to an accident waiting to happen, merely because we feel sorry for the drunk driver battling his alcoholic demons.
A reader emailed me over my weekend column, berating me for not being more mindful of the mindset of “racialized groups who have a long history of being treated as medical guinea pigs.” Her righteous tone reflected a common misconception based on speculation and stereotyping.
It doesn’t explain the readiness of Canada’s Indigenous people to line up for the vaccine and step up to the plate, despite decades of enforced sterilizations. It doesn’t account for the willingness of Jews, given the history of heinous medical experimentation in Nazi concentration camps, to get vaccinated along with everyone else.
That’s not to say outreach isn’t an outstanding idea, as I’ve written before. Explaining, reassuring and reaching out are sensible strategies for those still open to persuasion.
Health-care workers, however, are a special case. They were placed at the front of the line, starting last December, and could easily access trusted information sources.
If they are still thinking about it, after all this time and all those deaths, time’s up. Let us not conflate hesitancy with obstinacy and antipathy.
It is worth noting that in the days after France made vaccines mandatory, there was a surge of health-care workers lining up to get their jabs and keep their jobs. When other countries make the COVID-19 shot a requirement for entry, you will see thousands of cross-border shoppers, Florida snowbirds and Caribbean beach bums setting aside any residual vaccine hesitancy.
In behavioural economics, this is called the nudge theory (also known as the carrot and the stick): If you beg people to stop using plastic bags at the supermarket, most will ignore you; if you charge people five cents per bag, they will suddenly think twice about the expenditure and default to reusable bags.
Demanding that health-care workers get a needle is not cruel and unusual punishment, it’s a health and safety requirement. Pigheadedness is not principle.
If a health-care worker isn’t fully vaccinated after so many months, that’s not hesitancy. That’s non-compliance in an emergency.
The essence of health care is diagnosing the problem and applying the remedy — promptly. The enemy of health care is denial, which can take on a life of its own — ending in death.