Like it or not, François Legault’s proposed ‘no-vax tax’ moved the needle

Article originally published in The Star

Last week, Quebec Premier François Legault announced that his government would impose a “significant” financial penalty for people who choose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 for non-medical reasons.

There were no substantive details provided with the proposed policy. As for what constitutes significance, Legault stated that he did not believe $50 or $100 to be sufficient, but that access to medical care would not be tied to vaccination status. Presumably, the latter point was expressly stated so as to ensure the policy is onside with the Canada Health Act.

While a charter challenge of this forthcoming policy seems inevitable — Quebec civil liberty groups are already indicating they will mount one — it’s worth noting that the Quebec government isn’t exactly a stranger to invoking the notwithstanding clause, or imposing constitutionally questionable legislation on a minority of Quebecers because of the will of the majority, as Bill 21 has clearly demonstrated.

Even with the lack of details and the number of outstanding ethical and legal questions, the trial balloon lobbed by Legault was wildly successful no matter how you look at it. For starters, in announcing the half-baked proposal on Tuesday, it immediately changed the channel from Monday night’s news that Quebec’s public health director had resigned and was going to be replaced by the father of the spokesperson for Legault’s health minister.

If the underlying goal wasn’t a cynical PR play and was instead to increase vaccination rates, here too Legault was unquestionably successful. Over 7,000 people registered to get their first jab within 24 hours of the announcement.

In other words, you don’t have to like Legault’s flirtation with financial penalties for the unvaccinated to acknowledge that it worked, and is the kind of thing more governments should be thinking about doing if we want to move the needle on getting more people vaccinated.

We know that the unvaccinated are placing an oversized burden on our health-care system. Whether they realize it or not, unvaccinated Canadians are the ones who are driving the spread of Omicron-induced hospitalizations all over this country — and in doing so, continue to hold the rest of the vaccinated masses hostage to their own intransigence.

We also know that not every single person who remains unvaccinated is hopped up on misinformation memes, and out there protesting vaccine clinics and lobbing rocks at the prime minister. Gradations within the vaccine hesitant exist, and many unvaccinated people can indeed still be convinced to get the jab, either through mandates or incentives.

Too many politicians in this country have been reluctant to take a tougher approach with the unvaccinated, and in the case of the federal Conservatives, are arguably trying to pander to them. After suggesting on the federal campaign trail that vaccinations were a deeply personal choice, Erin O’Toole went one step further by recently advocating that “reasonable accommodations” must be made for the unvaccinated.

O’Toole isn’t wrong when he points out that there are a number of Canadians who will simply refuse the vaccine no matter what. But why would we accept the current number of unvaccinated Canadians as final, especially when we haven’t done nearly enough to try and get more Canadians vaccinated?

We’re nearly two years into this pandemic. Needless to say, we continue to be in an all-hands-on-deck public health situation wherein we need to increase our vaccination rates, including getting governments to use all the tools it has at its disposal to try and increase uptake of the vaccine.

Legault’s policy proposal, while imperfect, was at least definitive in drawing a line in the sand — and was successful in bringing more people into the vaccinated fold.

We need more of that from our political leaders, not less.

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