The province’s new COVID-19 immunization card is a good idea for several reasons. The most important one is that it will prevent serious illness and save lives.
The carrot — or stick, depending on how you look at it — of proving full immunization will give people more freedom. It will allow them to go places and do things they haven't done in months. It could also allow for a quicker reopening of the economy, which will help some businesses, save jobs and mitigate further harm to government treasuries.
But those aren’t the main reasons for the card. The real objective is to get vaccination rates above 80 per cent, a level most experts now believe is required to create enough herd immunity to return to normal life. There are growing concerns about the B.1.617 variant, a strain first identified in India. It’s spreading rapidly around the world and is not only more contagious, but a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is less effective against it compared with previous strains. Experts say a second dose is now more important than ever.
The faster second doses are administered, the fewer hospitalizations and deaths there will be. Right now, only a fraction of Manitobans have received a second dose, including those over 60. Of the 133,636 Manitobans aged 60 to 69 who have received at least one dose, 25,226 are fully vaccinated. Of the 90,346 in their 70s who are immunized, only 19,015 have received a second dose. Less than half of Manitobans in their 80s are fully immunized.
In many ways, an immunization card was inevitable. It was always in the back of our minds that at some point, we may need to produce vaccination papers to get on a plane, attend large gatherings or even dine in at a restaurant — at least in the short term. There’s a certain logic to it.
The tricky part for the government is deciding how to use this card. For now, it provides only a few liberties, including an exemption for self-isolation when travelling interprovincially, or if identified as a close contact. Fully immunized Manitobans will also have wider access to health-care facilities, including personal care homes.
The province would prefer to keep that list of freedoms (or as they call them, "added benefits") as short as possible. As tempting as it would be to make immunization cards mandatory in as many public places as possible — such as gyms, movie theatres, entertainment venues and restaurants — there are downsides to it.
Many people will not be eligible to get fully vaccinated for weeks, if not months, and won’t be able to get an immunization card until August, or later. Through no fault of their own, they won’t have the same freedom as others. Some, for legitimate medical reasons (although it's a tiny percentage), will not be able to get immunized at all.
The more services or venues that require card access, the greater the inequality in society.
"I don’t want this card to be used as a divisive thing," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.
Most Manitobans will get fully immunized regardless of whether the government issues immunization cards. They understand it’s the only way for society to return to normal life. But for the fence-sitters, or even the moderate COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers, if they think they may need this card to do the things they used to enjoy, like going to bars, concerts and sporting events, it will serve as a powerful incentive to get fully vaccinated.
It’s not like people can get two shots in a few days. They have to take steps now if they want a card by summer. This will get a lot of people off the fence.
That’s not to say the government won’t expand its "added benefits" list. It likely will, depending on vaccine demand. But it will probably be in areas where there is little enforcement, such as household visitations. If that doesn’t work, the government will have to take a more Orwellian approach and make it mandatory on a broader scale.
Either way, immunization cards are a logical and appropriate first step in the government’s reopening plan. This makes sense.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.