It’s difficult for me to write a column about the anti-vax movement in Canada without breaching TVO’s “no profanity, McGrath” rule. Science gave us what prior eras would have considered a miracle — not just one safe, effective vaccine ready for mass deployment in time to make a difference in the pandemic, but several. And the large majority of eligible people have rolled up their sleeves and done the right thing for themselves and for their communities and gotten their shots. Many of the others are merely hesitant, and I’ll defer to people with more qualifications than I on how best to reach them, on which mixture of carrots, sticks, and personal outreach would work best to allay their fears and share the incredible protection from hospitalization and death that the vaccines offer.
The small but loud group of hard-core anti-vaxxers is another matter, and if I think about it too long, I end up spiralling into nihilistic thought. In the end, the only reason to do journalism is the hope that making accurate information widely available — an integral part of our mission at TVO — helps people think and reflect and judge and be the best citizens they can be. The fact that some people in the world are choosing to take a horse dewormer instead of some of the most widely used and tested vaccines in human history honestly makes me question the existence of a rational public sphere, of intelligent debate itself.
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The whole sad ivermectin saga will make for several chapters of the history of COVID-19 when this is all done, and if that’s where the anti-vax movement ended, the rest of us could maybe just live our lives. Instead, we have to talk about whether increasingly feral protests have crossed the line separating constitutionally protected free expression from threats to public order. I’m a journalist. I don’t use those words lightly: your right to public protest is the same one that makes it possible for me to do my job, and I’m grateful for it.
But protests around hospitals across the country on Wednesday, the obstruction of ambulances that were trying to get to ERs, simply isn’t something any government can allow to persist for very long. At Queen’s Park, the New Democrats have pledged to introduce some kind of bill that would, if passed, establish “safety zones” for businesses that are adhering to public-health rules and facing harassment from anti-vaxxers. It’s a good principle, and it builds on the precedent of limiting protests around the immediate vicinity of abortion providers. I do, however, have some reservations about implementation — it could effectively make large parts of Ontario’s cities a no-protest zone, given the density of bars and restaurants in downtown streets. Legislators would need to tread carefully.
The argument for legislated safe zones around hospitals, on the other hand, is geographically limited to an obvious public necessity. They would also be a very literal way of telling health-care workers that we — the collective we, the democratic we, through our elected representatives and the rule of law — are still on their side, not the side of those doing their best to make this pandemic even worse and more painful than it needs to be. Screw your pots and pan: when the state is serious about something, it puts the cops to work. We can be at least as energetic about protecting our healers as we are about clearing the homeless out of encampments.
None of which means that I’m wild about yet another abridgement of our Charter rights during this pandemic, though I’ll note here that this would still leave anti-vaxers with substantially more free expression than, for example, teachers had when Ontario’s first state of emergency was declared and their pickets all became illegal. I have some real concerns about how this will all play out in the coming years after this emergency has faded. The vaccine passports are necessary now, but governments aren’t going to forget this technology exists when the pandemic ends. Anti-vaxxers have convinced me through their misconduct that hospital safe zones are necessary now, but hospitals make mistakes in normal times, too, and citizens have a right to protest them when they do. And make no mistake: if anti-vaxxers want to push things further, well, creating safe zones isn’t where the power of the state ends.
All of this is just one more tragedy in this pandemic: the literal solution to all this is freely available and right there for the taking, but that isn’t enough. A pandemic was always going to expand the state’s powers more than we’d imagined in January 2020. Still, we’ll need a vigilant electorate to slap government’s hands back if it tries to hold on to too much power when an emergency no longer justifies it.
That’s the thing about democracy: so long as we’re willing to use our votes each and every time, the slope is only as slippery as we let it be.