Believing they are entitled to medical freedom, vaccine opponents refuse the vaccine effective to suppress Covid outbreaks. They advocate for their “natural and legal” right not to get jabbed, chanting the slogan “my body, my choice.” But their choice may have consequences. When public health measures, including mandatory vaccines, have further restricted their rights, raged vaccine deniers have rallied across the cities, expressing their profound dissatisfaction over the loss of their rights and freedom. The vocal right protests against the vaccination have prompted the question --how far can personal choice go at the critical moment of a public health crisis?
Achievement in public health often carries a price in individual freedom, rendering civil rights in a fragile state. During a pandemic emergency, public safety takes priority over individual rights. To serve the common good and protect people's lives, provincial governments take on a new power, resorting to policies restricting personal choices -- from the emergency lockdown to social distancing orders to mandatory vaccinations. According to legal experts, reasonable and adequate public health measures can withstand Charter scrutiny. While forcing Covid-19 vaccine injection flies in the face of the law, limiting the freedom of those who willfully refuse the jab is entirely constitutional.
Some provincial governments valuing civil rights and freedom had once eschewed restrictive measures and disavowed the vaccine passport system. But the stark reality of the Covid crisis – from the cramped ICUs and burnt-out healthcare workers has forced them to budge from their anti-restriction stance. In June, the Alberta government lifted most Covid-19 restrictions -- from the mask and contact tracing requirements to indoor gathering ban, celebrating “a huge step towards regained freedom and personal liberty.” But the unrestricted freedom was short-lived. As Delta variant cases and hospitalization rates soared, the government has no choice but to adopt a slew of measures that again put restraints on individual liberty – from a 10 pm curfew to mandatory vaccination for frontline workers – to stem off rapidly escalating outbreaks.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford had earlier rejected the vaccination mandate to protect the rights of a minority group. But the rising tide of the fourth wave has forced him to do a complete U-turn on the vaccine passport. Early this month, Ford announced an “enhanced Covid-19 vaccine certificate system”, which imposes severe restrictions on personal and social activities for the unvaccinated, banning their visit to restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters. In the face of potential grave public threats, individual liberty is on the back burner. “We need to protect our hospitals; we need to avoid lockdowns at all costs. We want our kids in schools and our business to stay open,” said the Premier during the announcement.
Recognizing the fragility of civil rights in times of national emergency, Canadian courts tend to defer to public health authorities that have curbed individual liberty in the public interest. The Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court ruled last year that the province can lawfully impose restrictions on interprovincial travel, including a complete entry ban for non-essential travelers from other areas. The ruling has served as a legal guideline for provincial governments seeking Covid-19 travel restrictions.
To refuse vaccines is foolish and dangerous. The unvaccinated put themselves at high risks of getting infected and dying from Covid while imposing grave danger to a broader public. Government interventions to boost vaccination uptake and draconian measures to curb the rejecters’ civil liberty are necessary and justified at a time when a public health crisis puts tens of millions of lives at stake.
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