Canada’s political leaders could do serious damage to the country’s vaccination efforts if they engage in a charged and polarizing debate over vaccines during the federal election campaign, say people on the frontlines of outreach work and other experts.
“We don’t want to see them using vaccinations and vaccines as a political toy,” said Angela Carter, executive director of the non-profit Roots Community Services in Brampton, Ont., who helps organize vaccination clinics in Peel Region.
“I hope and I pray that our politicians, our leaders, are not that divisive.”
The warnings come just a day after the Liberals and Conservatives clashed over whether COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for federal public servants, with the Liberals in favour of the plan and the Conservatives opposed.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Monday accused the Liberals of trying to “drive a wedge between Canadians” through its mandatory vaccine proposal.
Trudeau fired back at that criticism, saying it was “unfortunate, but it’s typical of a party that has said we shouldn’t be helping Canadians as much as we did during the pandemic.”
The charged nature of the vaccine debate was evident during Trudeau’s campaign stop in Cobourg, Ont., on Monday evening, when about a dozen protesters heckled the Liberal leader over his stance on vaccines.
Trudeau responded by saying “the way through this is to vaccinate” to the cheers of his supporters in the crowd.
The Liberal proposal to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory would also extend to domestic travellers on Canada’s airlines and railways.
It’s not yet clear if there will be repercussions for people who refuse the vaccination without legitimate reason under the Liberal plan.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, say that instead of mandating vaccines, they’ll require unvaccinated people to take a rapid COVID-19 test before working or travelling.
Fears about a U.S.-style discourse on vaccines
While public health and vaccination experts say the discourse in Canada over vaccines has not reached the levels of divisiveness seen in the United States, they are watching the early days of the federal election campaign with some concern.
“There is a danger if this is not done carefully,” said Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, professor of microbiology at York University, of the debate around mandatory vaccines.
Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier this year that Canada surpassed the U.S. in vaccination rates in part because Canadians are not refusing vaccination “on the basis of ideology and political persuasion.”
Golemi-Kotra said people “shying away from vaccination” could become an even more entrenched challenge if Canadians see federal leaders sparring over the issue.
Based on a CBC News estimate, around 5.7 million Canadians have not yet received a shot despite there being ample supply in most of the country.
Saleh Altaf, a manager with DiverseCity Community Relations in Surrey, B.C., is among the scores of frontline workers across the country trying to get those remaining people vaccinated.
“If political parties were unified on messaging, that would end up helping the most vulnerable,” said Saleh Altaf, who focuses on seniors and other vulnerable communities in his outreach work.
How politicians should proceed
If the federal leaders want to debate vaccine mandates without damaging larger vaccination efforts, experts say they could do so by clearly communicating the nuances of the proposal, rather than framing it as an issue of individual rights versus the public good.
Maya Goldenberg, a University of Guelph professor and the author of the 2021 book Vaccine Hesitancy, said that’s typically how the debate is framed.
“It’s not the case that because you support mandates you are against individual rights, nor is it that if you don’t support mandates you hold individual rights above everything else. But politically that’s how it will get framed,” she said.
Goldenberg called on federal leaders to spend more time discussing “what else is involved in a mandate,” such as the exemptions for people with medical reasons or the benefit of employers knowing which of its employees are vaccinated in the event of an outbreak.