Vaccination, Discrimination, and Canadian Civil Liberties

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Civil liberties debates about whether individuals should have to get vaccinated against Covid-19 are on the rise. Civil liberties groups broadly worry that individuals will suffer intrusions into their privacy, or that rights of association or other rights will be unduly abridged, as businesses and employers require individuals to demonstrate proof of vaccination.

As discussed in a recent article published by the CBC, some individuals are specifically unable to, or concerned about, receiving Covid-19 vaccines on the basis that, “they’re taking immunosuppressant drugs, for example, while others have legitimate concerns about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines or justifiable fears borne from previous negative interactions with the health-care system.” The same expert, Arthur Schafer of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said, “[w]e should try to accommodate people who have objections, conscientious or scientific or even religious, where we can do so without compromising public safety and without incurring a disproportionate cost to society.”

Other experts, such as Ann Cavoukian, worry that being compelled to disclose vaccination status could jeopardize individuals’ medical information should it be shared with parties who are not equipped to protect it, or who may combine it with other information to discriminate against individuals. For the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, they have taken the stance that individuals should have the freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not, that no compulsions should be applied to encourage vaccination (e.g., requiring vaccination to attend events), and broadly that, “COVID is just another risk now that we have to incorporate into our daily lives.”

In situations where individuals are unable to be vaccinated, either due to potential allergic responses or lack of availability of vaccine (e.g., those under the age of 12), then it is imperative to ensure that individuals do not face discrimination. In these situations, those affected cannot receive a vaccine and it is important to not create castes of the vaccinated and unable-to-be-vaccinated. For individuals who are hesitant due to historical negative experiences with vaccination efforts, or medical experimentation, some accommodations may also be required.

However, in the cases where vaccines are available and there are opportunities to receive said vaccine, then not getting vaccinated does constitute a choice. As it stands, today, in many Canadian schools children are required to received a set of vaccinations in order to attend school and if their parents refuse, then the children are required to use alternate educational systems (e.g., home schooling). When parents make a specific choice they are compelled to deal with the consequences of said decision. (Of course, there is not a vaccine for individuals under 12 years of age at the moment and so we shouldn’t be barring unvaccinated children from schools, but adopting such a requirement in the future might align with how schools regularly require proof of vaccination status to attend public schools.)

The ability to attend a concert, as an example, can and should be predicated on vaccination status where vaccination is an option for attendees. Similarly, if an individual refuses to be vaccinated their decision may have consequences in cases where they are required to be in-person in their workplace. There may be good reasons for why some workers decline to be vaccinated, such as a lack of paid days off and fear that losing a few days of work due to vaccination symptoms may prevent them from paying the rent or getting food; in such cases, accommodations to enable them to get vaccinated are needed. However, once such accommodations are made decisions to continue to not get vaccinated may have consequences.

In assessing whether policies are discriminatory individuals’ liberties as well as those of the broader population must be taken into account, with deliberate efforts made to ensure that group rights do not trample on the rights of minority or disenfranchised members of society. Accommodations must be made so that everyone can get vaccinated; rules cannot be established that apply equally but affect members of society in discriminatory ways. But, at the same time, the protection of rights is conditional and mitigating the spread of a particularly virulent disease that has serious health and economic effects is arguably one of those cases where protecting the community (and, by extension, those individuals who are unable to receive a vaccine for medical reasons) is of heightened importance.

Is this to say that there are no civil liberties concerns that might arise when vaccinating a population? No, obviously not.

In situations where individuals are unhoused or otherwise challenged in keeping or retaining a certification that they have been vaccinated, then it is important to build policies that do not discriminate against these classes of individuals. Similarly, if there is a concern that vaccination passes might present novel security risks that have correlate rights concerns (e.g., a digital system that links presentations of a vaccination credential with locational information) then it is important to carefully assess, critique, and re-develop systems so that they provide the minimum data required to reduce the risk of Covid-19’s spread. Also, as the population of vaccinated persons reaches certain percentages there may simply be less of a need to assess or check that someone is vaccinated. While this means that some ‘free riders’ will succeed, insofar as they will decline to be vaccinated and not suffer any direct consequences, the goal is not to punish people who refuse vaccination and instead to very strongly encourage enough people to get vaccinated so that the population as a whole is well-protected.

However, taking a position that Covid-19 is part of society and that society just has to get used to people refusing to be vaccinated while participating in ‘regular’ social life, and that this is just a cost of enjoying civil liberties, seems like a bad argument and a poor framing of the issue. Making this kind of broader argument risks pushing the majority of Canadians towards discounting all reasons that individuals may present to justify or explain not getting vaccinated, with the effect of inhibiting civil society from getting the public on board to protect the rights of those who would be harmfully affected by mandatory vaccination policies or demands that individuals always carry vaccine passport documents.

Those who have made a choice to opt-out of vaccination may experience resulting social costs, but those who cannot opt to get a vaccine in the first place or who have proven good reasons for avoiding vaccination shouldn’t be unduly disadvantaged. That’s the line in the sand to hold and defend, not that protecting civil liberties means that there should be no cost for voluntarily opting out of life saving vaccination programs.