A small, noisy, illogical minority is endangering our health care system and the rest of us.
THE NOISY CLAMOUR against public health precautions gets noisier while the moderate majority contemplates a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections surging through the unvaccinated population this winter.
Just as the Alberta provincial government’s official triage strategy for deciding who gets scarce hospital emergency beds and who gets sent home to die was leaked—to great public consternation—another protest of unmasked anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-proof-of-vaccination factions convened in Edmonton.
There was a protest in the BC capital too, where politicians had just said no to an Alberta request to transfer critical COVID-19 patients to BC as available beds in Alberta dwindled. COVID-19 admissions were flooding into Alberta’s intensive care units at a rate that grew by 16 percent the previous week.
Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
BC declined on grounds that while Alberta’s health care system seemed poised to collapse—at current rates of infection all the province’s remaining intensive care beds could be filled in two more weeks, some experts said—BC’s own supply of intensive care beds was already moving steadily toward the same danger zone. Remaining available beds were the margin preventing a similar public health disaster here.
So, preparation for a possible airlift of patients from Alberta to distant Ontario—all that nasty “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” rhetoric now parked for some sunnier day—got underway. Alberta’s health care unions bluntly asked the government to seek federal aid from the military and from the Red Cross.
Rallies, specious claims and the surveillance society
It didn’t take cynics long to point out that given COVID-19’s 14-day incubation period and the way the new Delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated population (about 90 percent of all new infections are in that group) that the unmasked and unvaccinated mingling at mass rallies are likely going to start falling ill and looking for emergency beds in around two weeks, just about the time that stress on the system might trigger that triage protocol.
Triage is a term that comes to us from the ghastly horrors of the First World War. A deluge of severely wounded from battles which could see 60,000 casualties in a single day descended upon primitive field hospitals and forced medical officers to divide the casualties into three streams. Those who could still walk got sent on to the next hospital down the line. Those with severe wounds but a better chance of survival went into the field hospital. Those deemed to have less of a chance got sent to the “dying tent,” where they were abandoned to their fate.
The idea that a rich, advanced economy is now possibly on the cusp of triaging patients who could have easily avoided serious illness is a bizarre revelation, but there it is.
The current protest movement seems to be largely composed of folks who perceive science as an oppressive tool employed by highly suspect intellectual elites. Not least among the dissenters are those who challenge the legitimacy of the “germ theory” that has been a foundation of medical practice since the scientific method discovered that if obstetricians disinfected their hands before delivering babies, maternal deaths from childbed infections declined sharply. And that when sewers were separated from drinking water, cholera epidemics abruptly disappeared.
Others dissenters advance specious claims—the COVID-19 vaccine causes fertility problems for women; it causes men’s testicles to swell; the vaccine causes the same disease pathology as COVID-19 does; it’s a sinister government plot against racialized minorities; and so on.
Then there are the earnest libertarian constitutional conspiracy theorists. They argue that being asked to show that you’ve been vaccinated for a disease that’s now killed one of every 500 people in the United States (and adds about 8,000 a day to the 4,550,000 it’s already killed world wide) before being allowed into crowded space is an assault upon protected freedom. The freedom to give somebody else a potentially lethal disease presumably trumps the right of the uninfected to mitigate the chance of infection.
And there is just plain delusional paranoia—how else does one characterize claims that a molecular-level vaccine injected in liquid form by transparent hypodermic needle while you watch is secretly embedding a microchip that will report your activities back to government?
News Flash: Government doesn’t need to embed a microchip in your arm to monitor your activities. It can already listen to you, observe you and track your movements using your smart phone’s microphone, camera and GPS functions. Your smart TV, the computer chip in your car, the chip in your bank card, the chip in your credit card, the chip in your computer, your tablet, your modem. So many chips. All of which can be compromised.
Should it so desire, government can use your Facebook account, your Netflix account, your Amazon account, Yahoo, Google, Tik-Tok, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, Apple, your tax returns, your pension funds, your medical and pharmaceutical claims, your driving record, your shoppers’ rewards cards. Even your library card is tracking you.
My library account, for example, not only lists what I’ve read, it tells me how long it took me to read each book, interrupts with finger-wagging notifications about when the book is due, how long it will take me to finish if I will just buckle down to it and how many people are lined up awaiting the book over which I’m so inconsiderately lingering. Has it stopped me borrowing books? No, because I’ve decided the trade-off is worth it. Just as people flock to social media because they value convenience of communication over privacy—vaccine conspiracy theorists included.
The surveillance society has been here for some time, alas. It doesn’t need to stealthily embed microchips in you; you’ve already embedded yourself in the personal data-gathering matrix. Indeed, the best way to avoid Big Brother intruding into your life isn’t refusing vaccination—or spitting on nurses—it’s to stop using all that convenient technology. The same technology used to plaster social media with angry rants against invasive government while organizing rallies where protesters gather and take selfies which can be harvested by authorities and then scanned by facial recognition software.
A small minority
The hard take-away from the September 15 public health briefing is that 81.7 percent of the COVID-19 patients in BC hospitals are unvaccinated. The same data shows if you are unvaccinated your chances of going into hospital are 43.5 times greater than if you are vaccinated. Those odds are not ones I’d happily bet at any race track.
And yet, across Canada, the highly vocal minority so vehemently opposed to proof of vaccination requirements for certain activities—deemed by public health authorities to place other vulnerable people at risk of infection—was at it again on social media and in person this week.
Rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
In Ontario, the target was once again hospitals. In Vancouver, at least, the protest shifted to city hall. In Victoria it was at the legislature. But in Kamloops protesters swarmed school corridors where virtually all the kids are also unvaccinated.
Let’s get this straight from the get-go, though. Although protesters inflate their importance, they represent a small minority. In all of Canada, adherents probably number less than the population of Calgary.
The number of Canadians voluntarily vaccinated so far—and that number rises every day—is roughly 85 percent of the population. So about 15 percent remains unvaccinated. But of this percentage about 10 percent is under 12, can’t yet be vaccinated and isn’t likely on Facebook fomenting an anti-vaccination revolution. So that leaves five percent unvaccinated, of whom who knows how many are actually opposed to vaccines and how many are just needle-phobic, uninformed, ill-informed, caught up in the political exhilaration of saying “No!” or perhaps simply find it inconvenient or think they’re unlikely to be exposed and get sick.
Meanwhile, Canadians in the actual majority are fed up with anti-vaxxer antics that are clearly imported—right down to the slogans—from the United States where public health responses to the pandemic have been uncoordinated, marked by government policy that that verges on medical lunacy, blizzards of lies, dissimulation, fake news and good old incompetence.
British novelist Martin Amis, writing a collection of essays about his sojourn in America, titled his book The Moronic Inferno. Enough said.
An Angus Reid poll taken last week indicates that the vast majority of Canadians conclude that their right not to be exposed to a lethal virus trumps those of people who think their rights entitle them to go anywhere under any conditions regardless of the risk they pose.
Requiring proof of vaccination not new or odd
There have always been vaccination requirements curbing participation in certain activities, not only in Canada but in the 122 other countries, from Australia to Zambia, which at this moment reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone who can’t produce proof of vaccination for certain diseases.
You need a vaccine card to get into Costa Rica for that tropical beach vacation, for example. Not only that, you must produce proof that you have medical insurance that will cover up to $50,000 in COVID-19 medical treatments and enough money to cover your quarantine period.
Seems reasonable considering that the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada—the vast majority of whom appear to be unvaccinated—is estimated at $23,000. And for those who go into an ICU bed—again, mostly the unvaccinated—the cost per patient is estimated at $55,000.
Thinking of some winter snorkelling in Belize? You need an official card showing you’ve been fully COVID-19 vaccinated for at least two weeks. The Galapagos? Ecuador wants proof of full vaccination status.
So how, exactly, does this differ from BC universities saying that if you want to sit in a crowded lecture theatre you need to reassure your fellow students, teaching assistants, professors and cleaning staff that you’ve been fully vaccinated?
Yet of these requirements, one set is arbitrarily framed as a constitutional invasion of personal freedoms while the other becomes merely the inconvenience necessary to take international winter vacations in a warm climate.
Typical signage at rally at the BC Legislature, September 18, 2021 (photo by Leslie Campbell)
Nor are these COVID-19 requirements a recent invention. Many countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever before entry. Others want proof of polio vaccinations and for meningococcal meningitis.
Indeed, on my left arm is the faint white scar left by a smallpox vaccination. I had to be able to prove that I’d had one to get into Canada as an infant immigrant almost three-quarters of a century ago. Smallpox was just one of the 86 reportable diseases on Canada’s list for public health regulation dating back to 1924.
The current list has 57 reportable diseases. All can be regulated when and if authorities deem it necessary. These diseases range from AIDS and HIV to viral hemorrhagic fever and yellow fever. Regulations governing many of them have been dropped as their risk, thankfully has diminished with vaccination programs, public sanitation, improved hygiene and better public education.
So, when those convinced that vaccination mandates for COVID-19 are some kind of exceptional invasion of their civil liberties, they clearly haven’t read their own Charter of Rights and Freedoms very carefully.
Nor have they read the long-established federal Quarantine Act, which offers some jaw-dropping penalties for those who might think of flouting it.
Here’s Section 15(2): “Any traveller who has reasonable grounds to suspect that they have or might have a communicable disease listed on the schedule…or that they have been in close proximity to a person who has, or is reasonably likely to have, a communicable disease listed in the schedule…shall disclose that fact to a screening officer…”
And here’s Section 72: “Every person who contravenes subsection 15(2)…is guilty of an offence” liable to a maximum fine of $500,000 or a three-year prison term or both!
Aggressive public health powers have been around since before Canada was formed in 1867. There were mandated quarantines for cholera, for smallpox and there were official if primitive vaccination campaigns, one of which was conducted by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in an attempt to limit the impact of a smallpox epidemic.
So is it surprising that more than three-quarters of Canadians now support restrictions on unvaccinated individuals preventing them from attending crowded public events? While that level of support for mandated vaccination proof falls off when it comes to requiring proof of vaccination to attend work, even there two-thirds of Canadians still want restrictions.
And frustration is clearly growing. Angus Reid polling shows 77 percent of Canadians think government should use its regulatory powers to keep public spaces safe from unnecessary exposure to unvaccinated individuals who are the greatest risk to others, if only by their far greater propensity to become infected. The elderly, for example, even though vaccinated, remain vulnerable to breakthrough infections that are the more lethal the older that they are.
Polling shows Canadians—almost half—think that those who decline or refuse vaccinations should move down the priority list as hospital resources are flooded with seriously ill but unvaccinated individuals.
Ethically, that’s not really a defensible argument. We don’t deny medical treatment to smokers or other substance abusers. Although it is noteworthy that alcohol abusers who are in need of liver transplants and won’t stop drinking don’t get the same priority as those who do stop drinking. Nevertheless, we don’t deny emergency services to drivers who don’t wear seatbelts or cyclists who don’t wear helmets.
The financial and moral burden of the unvaccinated
The willful refusal to vaccinate raises another ethical issue, the matter of cost, both financial and moral.
In BC, data indicates that unvaccinated individuals are 34 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. And data from September 15 showed that of the 661 new cases in BC, 68 percent involved people who had not been vaccinated. Of those who went to hospital, 81.7 percent had not been vaccinated.
As mentioned, the average cost per hospitalization for a COVID-19 patient in Canada is $23,000, and $55,000 for those who go into an ICU bed. Of the 70,000 COVID-19 cases who have so far been hospitalized in Canada, almost 69,000 were unvaccinated and they have so far cost the taxpayers at least $1.5 billion in medical care. (Some of these cases occurred before vaccinations were available.)
Canada did well in keeping costs down by vaccinating fast, in greater numbers and across a broader cross-section of the population, thus lowering the burden on the health care system.
In the US, the demand for hospital services by the unvaccinated—about 10 times the rate for vaccinated patients—cost more than $5 billion since June alone. Most of this cost, point out medical economists, was almost entirely avoidable.
The US Centre for Disease Control, which has been closely tracking, says the number of preventable COVID-19 hospital cases in the US ballooned from 32,000 in June to 187,000 in August, almost all of it attributed to unvaccinated patients.
“Based on approximately 530,000 hospital admissions with confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in June-August 2021, we estimate 98.6 percent of hospital admissions with COVID-19 during this period were among unvaccinated people.”
Next, the moral burden:
In Alberta, in order to redeploy trained staff to emergency and intensive care beds, government cancelled all elective and non-critical surgeries. At the province’s children’s hospital, only “life and limb” operations were still being done. All because of the surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who, if they’d gotten vaccinations in a timely fashion, mostly wouldn’t be in hospital.
Procedures cancelled ranged from orthopaedic surgery to brain operations. Patients expressed deepening anxiety and stress as long-scheduled procedures were postponed indefinitely.
Now, hip replacement surgery is considered elective. But if you’ve spent time with somebody dealing with the agonies of severe osteoarthritis in the hip joint, constant fear of falling on stairs, severely restricted mobility and the need for constant—however unwanted—pharmaceutical pain relief just to be able to sleep, it quickly becomes clear that “elective” is a relative value and that for the patient awaiting surgery it’s less an issue of choice than an imperative.
Doctors putting together their triage plans to determine who lives and who dies, plans to airlift patients between provinces, other provinces saying “No room at the inn!” to friends, neighbours and relatives, children being told that long-awaited surgery to correct a deformed limb or seniors needing hip replacements told to put up with their suffering for whatever it takes of whatever time they have left—it didn’t have to be this way.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.