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Braedan Aubry

I’ve noticed a growing call for refusing unvaccinated individuals the right to medical care. I often tune in to 630 CHED on my drive to work, and usually, the program is composed of the same gloomy headlines about COVID19 in Alberta. Callers often phone in to discuss recent developments about the fourth wave, but lately, these discussions have turned into voracious debates on who is deserving of medical care. I understand where the frustration is coming from, but this kind of ethical debate should be left to medical professionals.

Alberta ICU admissions by vaccine status. Photo by Alberta Health Services

The unvaccinated are a controversial group. This pandemic has dragged on for so long, and the fourth wave has seen ICU admissions almost entirely composed of unvaccinated individuals, so it’s understandable to be outraged by this. It’s absurd that we have to cancel surgeries for sick children so our medical system can divert resources to fighting COVID-19 while other provinces have returned to a relatively normal state of affairs. It’s shocking that we have to outline triage protocols in Alberta, which are basically bleak guidelines for who lives and dies if the ICU capacity situation worsens. These issues allude to the severity of the pandemic in our province, but the ethics around who can receive medical care should remain a constant variable; it should not be a variable that changes depending on the social climate at the time.

People question why we should treat the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated were warned of what would happen, they chose not to get their vaccine, and they ended up in the hospital occupying vital ICU beds. Many people believe this is the perfect time to say we told you so, but we should take our cues from the medical professionals themselves. When someone walks through the ER doors sick, vulnerable, and in need of help, healthcare workers don’t berate them for their political views on vaccinations. Instead, healthcare workers provide care and compassion because they understand that they still deserve empathy regardless of their differences.

In an interview with 630 CHED, Former WHO chief ethics advisor Daniel Wikler says, “If someone shows up at the ICU and they’re gasping for breath, and they didn’t accept the vaccine offered to them on a silver platter. Of course, we can get angry with them. We ought to get angry with them; they were irresponsible…but should the penalty for doing that be a refusal to accept them into the ICU? I don’t think so.”

October Covid19 data in Alberta. Photo by Alberta Health Services

Compassion for the unvaccinated is in short supply, but we must look at them as individuals to shed the us versus them mentality. These are individuals with family members that care about them. They’re wives, husbands, children and parents that have loved ones in the hospital fighting for their lives. The unvaccinated are victims of the pandemic themselves. We’re quick to identify them as a group on the fringes of society, but often they’re your neighbours, in-laws, and coworkers that are very close to home. I have people in my life that are not vaccinated, and I very much disagree with their choice not to get vaccinated, but I would be distraught if they were turned away from the emergency room because of their political views. The vaccine is a divisive topic, but our healthcare system should not have to choose sides.

We must look at the broader picture and ask what the systemic cause of the anti-vax movement is. The movement does not exist in a vacuum. It’s fueled by societal issues that affect some individuals more than others. Distrust of the government is one issue, while social media and misinformation also contribute to the larger problem. We are quick to forget the underlying issues our society faced before the pandemic began that created the situation we’re in today. 

Photo by Angus Reid Institute

Distrust of the government is an incredibly ironic issue because both the vaccinated and unvaccinated share this perspective to some degree at this point in the pandemic. Our provincial government has mismanaged its response to this virus to the point where our premier has the lowest approval rating of any provincial leader in our country. The UCP has lost every shred of credibility to its name, and even UCP party members have called for Kenney to be sent packing. If you want vaccines to be widely accepted, you need robust and effective leadership starting from the top. Kenney did not initially take a firm stance on vaccination, and many provincial and federal politicians are still against it. We have political leaders that put their followers in danger, yet we often blame the individual for their stance on vaccinations. This needs to change.

Social media has been an incessant driver of misinformation, and it’s played an essential role in creating a welcoming environment for conspiracy theories and alternative medical practices. Why get the vaccine when you can explore the “wonders” of natural immunity and Ivermectin dosing backed by “credible” sources and testimonials from your peers? The vaccine-hesitant and anti-vax communities were alive and well pre-COVID, but the global economic shutdown in March 2020 was the catalyst for this online community to explode in popularity. This is not a new movement, but it’s grown drastically as we’ve all turned to social media as a refuge from isolation and boredom. Perhaps we should call on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms that promote this content before we download the blame onto the individuals susceptible to misinformation.

Empathy is how to bridge the gap between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are concerned about their lives, livelihoods, and loved ones just as we are, but their concerns are presented differently. They’re concerned about their rights and freedoms, and it’s their democratic right to be concerned. I’m not absolving the unvaccinated for the strain they’ve placed on the healthcare system, but when it comes to the majority calling for the right to refuse medical care to those who are not vaccinated, I’m advocating for some degree of forgiveness for individuals that have fallen victim to this pandemic. We’re living in an unusual time that’s full of divisiveness, but I hope if I ever find myself in a minority group that believes the media and government have failed me, I’ll still have somewhere to turn that doesn’t discriminate against my political views if I become sick and desperate for medical care. As Canadians, we have an obligation to separate our medical institutions from the political circus that COVID has become, and I hope that when we look back on this pandemic, we have no regrets about the decisions we made when this health crisis was at its worst. Regardless of what vaccination camp you’re in, we’re all part of the same province as we rebuild in the wake of the pandemic.

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