While media commentators have devoted barrels of ink and a profusion of pixels to encouraging Manitobans to get immunized against COVID-19, most have stopped short of recommending vaccinations be mandatory. That’s as it should be. To introduce a legal requirement for Manitobans to get jabbed would show a dangerous disregard for rights and freedoms.
The issue becomes more complicated, however, when the question expands to which privileges should be denied to unvaccinated Manitobans.
A current matter of contention is whether COVID-19 immunization should be mandatory for people in vulnerable settings. Should unvaccinated people be allowed to work in, and visit, institutions such as personal-care homes, penal institutions or hospitals?
Non-immunized people who enter such facilities pose a greater risk of spreading the virus to people inside, many of whom are defenceless to protect themselves by nature of their occupancy within the institutions. The tension between conflicting rights is clear: an individual has the right to reject vaccination, and residents who are dependent on institutions have the right to be safeguarded from someone else’s unsafe behaviour.
The tension between conflicting rights is clear: an individual has the right to reject vaccination, and residents who are dependent on institutions have the right to be safeguarded from someone else’s unsafe behaviour.
This polarizing issue is currently being discussed in many jurisdictions, including Manitoba, where public-health leaders are crafting a recommendation for the province to consider mandatory COVID-19 immunization in vulnerable settings.
One private operator of 12 personal-care homes in Manitoba didn’t wait for the government’s recommendation. Revera Inc. — a national company that seems to be taking proactive measures after its homes recorded a particularly tragic number of fatalities early in the pandemic — says new staff will only be hired if they’ve received the double doses, with exceptions only for "legitimate, established" reasons. Staff who are already employed and choose to remain unvaccinated will require daily COVID-19 testing.
Making COVID-19 immunization mandatory for workers and visitors to institutions housing vulnerable people might seem like a natural next step for Manitoba, which has already decided to give immunized Manitobans lots of other privileges once they get a digital or physical card that proves they’re fully vaxxed.
Governments in Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick have ruled out such vaccine passports, but Manitoba has for several weeks been producing the cards — notwithstanding a supply-chain problem with acquiring enough plastic blanks — that lets immunized Manitobans travel without self-isolating upon return, and attend movie theatres, museums, casinos or the home opener of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
As other provinces wrestle with the same dilemma Manitoba faces on the issue of whether to make immunization mandatory to visit and work in institutions, a middle-ground alternative has emerged in Ontario.
CBC has obtained a draft document — not yet approved by Doug Ford’s cabinet — that recommends workers in health-care facilities not be required to be immunized against COVID-19. Instead, unvaccinated workers could keep their jobs and have contact with patients, provided they wear full protective equipment (PPE) and get screened often for the coronavirus.
The right to refuse a vaccination is not the most powerful imperative at this stage of the pandemic.
The right to refuse a vaccination is not the most powerful imperative at this stage of the pandemic. Precedence must be given to the need to protect health and safety and — more importantly — the need to stop the spread of the virus.
Without forcing workers and visitors to get vaccinated, Manitoba institutions do have the right to subject unvaccinated people to continued restrictions. This power shouldn’t be exercised lightly, but it’s available as a legally correct and morally justifiable option.
The stakes are as high as the lives of people in vulnerable settings.