Instead of fining the unvaccinated, let’s fine the politicians who fan the flames

Hill Times January 17, 2022

Quebec Premier François Legault is forging a unique approach again: fine the unvaccinated. And immediately voices rise up in horror across the country to this affront to our Canadian way of being!

The idea of fining the anti-vaxxers is bad policy. It’s punitive without fair trial so potentially infringes on human rights. It will cost more to implement than it will fine, and it’s impossible to implement (how to find the vaccine-hesitant, who would hand over the ticket, do we really want public health officers and police officers spending all their time doing this). Third, the reasons for not getting a vaccination are a wide mix of trust issues, some anti-government quacks, and then there’s all the people who simply can’t get through to book an appointment.

Except here’s this small sticking point. Thousands of people signed up in Quebec to get vaccinated following his threat. Have to hand it to Legault, he was certainly clear in his stance for vaccination: clear communication, questionable public health policy.

On the other hand, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who tested positive for COVID last week, choses a distinctly southern-U.S.-state approach—let COVID run free and we’ll all be free! The Saskatchewan chief public health officer desperately pleaded that people do the right thing, except he can’t say out loud what the right thing is: so that’s poor communication, because of poor public health policy.

It is safe to say that public health policy experts strongly disagree with the free-the-COVID approach of Saskatchewan, as well as taxing the unvaccinated of Quebec. It seems that Dr. Horacio Arruda disagreed with Legault’s scheme to tax the anti-vaxxers, and paid the price for taking a principled stand for science. The fact is that it’s surprising that only one public health officer has been impacted. It is a sad time when the public health expertise is muted and when science takes a back seat to politics.  Public health officers are the heroes of our day, yet they remain humble, doing their best for the public good. It’s a damn shame they keep on getting sidelined by politicians.

It is not too much to demand that politicians have basic knowledge about statistics and epidemiology. Elected leaders need to know enough to do no harm.

But even more importantly, elected leaders need the capacity and understanding to recognize how their words impact on the decisions of others. When O’Toole says he won’t question why his MPs don’t get vaccinated, hundreds of Canadians believe they can get away with breaking public health orders, not to mention the few other politicians who are fanning the flames of disinformation.

If you thought COVID was dangerous, just wait until you see what disinformation will do to democracy, to the public good, to your community.

It is a warning for our democracy when politicians have the audacity to mute science to assuage their own needs or political power. In the work of democracy, some have lost the whole point that democracy is only about the public good: keep as many people alive as possible. Has any university offered a free online course in public health epidemiology to elected leaders yet?  What they need to know in order to lead a country through a pandemic?

Influencing behaviour of populations, the heart of public health, is about carrots and sticks. Maybe we need a bigger stick.

Fine any politician who fans the flames of disinformation. Make it count, a fine of $25,000 a pop, and it can’t be covered by the salaries paid by taxpayers. The public good relies on non-partisan expertise of public health officials, on fact. Without science, we have no democracy.