Here we go again. With COVID-19 case counts suddenly spiking in the United States, Great Britain and Europe, the pandemic we all hoped was behind us is once again showing just how resilient it can be. And this time, the culprit for its return is clear: the combination of a new variant and millions of unvaccinated people.
The spread of the Delta variant has public health officials in the U.K. projecting as many as 100,000 new daily cases “within weeks,” although the country’s high vaccination rates mean the number of hospitalizations and deaths will be lower than previous waves. But they are rising, and they’re rising even faster in places like Texas and Florida, where half the adult population has yet to receive their first dose. And while Canada is now ahead of the United States in terms of the numbers of people who are fully vaccinated, we’re not out of the woods yet.
That’s because the new and more contagious variants mean so-called “herd immunity” requires 75 to 90 per cent vaccination rates, not the 60 to 70 per cent previously seen as the threshold. And because children under 12 can’t get vaccinated yet and represent approximately 13 per cent of the population, that means we need just about everyone over the age of 12 to get vaccinated.
That’s not happening in Alberta, where demand for second doses is falling off sharply. According to provincial health data, there are more than 500,000 people who are now eligible for their second dose but haven’t gotten it yet. That’s particularly worrying in a province that has one of the lowest rates of first doses in the country and only counts 51 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.
The United Conservative Party government has tried to increase these numbers by dangling a number of carrots in front of the vaccine-hesitant population, including three $1-million prizes and a series of smaller ones (including hunting trips and fishing permits) aimed more specifically at rural Albertans. So far, at least, the carrots aren’t working.
That’s why it’s time for the sticks. Governments can’t force people to get vaccinated, of course, and that’s a bridge too far anyway. But they can raise the cost of their decision to refuse the vaccine and ignore the huge volumes of scientific research indicating herd immunity is the only way to beat this virus. If they want to engage in anti-social behaviour, they should be deprived of the opportunity to socialize with those of us who did our duty.
That’s what French President Emmanuel Macron did recently, when his government announced compulsory vaccination of all health-care workers and a new requirement of proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for anyone wanting to enter the country’s cafés, cinemas, shopping malls and other public spaces. The result? Record numbers of vaccinations, including nearly a million in just one day.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wasn’t willing to go quite that far, but on Monday he announced those without their vaccinations wouldn’t be able to get into nightclubs and other large public gatherings. “Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough,” he said.
Quebec has already edged in that direction with its plan to introduce so-called “vaccine passports” in parts of the province where COVID-19 rates are highest. In Manitoba, the government has been issuing proof-of-immunization cards to everyone two weeks past their second shot.
But in Alberta, where Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever” is in full swing, this idea is apparently a non-starter. “We’ve been very clear from the beginning that we will not facilitate or accept vaccine passports,” Kenney told reporters at his annual Calgary Stampede pancake breakfast last week. Unless he changes his mind, that “best summer ever” could quickly morph into the worst fall possible for Albertans.
Canada has tried the carrot approach to encourage COVID vaccinations. Now it's time for the stick, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #cdnpoli #COVID
The carrots, after all, haven’t worked. It’s time to give the sticks a try. The cost of continuing to coddle or cater to vaccine skeptics is just too high, and it shouldn’t fall on those of us who dutifully followed public health guidelines, received our vaccinations and made numerous sacrifices in order to fight the pandemic.
Yes, Kenney is clearly terrified of his rural base, which is the home of Alberta’s unvaccinated population. And there’s no question more stringent rules around vaccinations would trigger a furious reaction from the freedom-obsessed fringe elements that have consistently rejected public health measures like masking, and seem well-represented within the UCP.
But as unpleasant as this blowback might be, Kenney should be more scared of the prospect of a fourth wave and what it would mean for his re-election chances in 2023. Conservatives used to believe in strong, principled leadership and governments that protected their citizens from external threats. Now, more than ever, it’s time for them to rediscover that — and raise the price of being unvaccinated before the rest of us have to pay it for them.