It’s a well-known saying and a generally accepted truth that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. There’s much less consensus, however, about what absolute power looks like. How do we know the difference between legitimate power and when a person or institution has too much and must be resisted?
The draconian lockdown policies of the Liberal government of Nova Scotia have long since crossed the Rubicon into authoritarianism, but their recent campaign promise to institute a vaccine pass, restricting access to public places on the basis of vaccine status, is a clear sign that now there must be resistance.
The much-vaunted World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed its opposition to vaccine mandates on the grounds that these would discriminate on the basis of vaccine access. Quite so. But there are other reasons, too.
Consider, for the moment, the common sense of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the subject of vaccine passports last January.
“There are a broad range of reasons why someone might not get vaccinated and I’m worried about creating knock-on, undesirable effects in our community,” Trudeau said.
“The indications that the vast majority of Canadians are looking to get vaccinated will get us to a good place without having to take more extreme measures that could have real divisive impacts on community and country,” he added wisely.
Assuming for the moment the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines as many or perhaps even most do, one may still sympathize with the concerns of those reluctant to line up for these controversial jabs.
They have yet to receive the stamp of approval from major regulatory bodies like the American Food and Drug Administration that’s required for any drug to reach the market under ordinary circumstances. Savvy citizens have noticed that the reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) in the United States are off the charts, and they also know that under normal circumstances a drug trial is stopped after a threshold of dangerous side effects or deaths is crossed that the VAERS data would suggest has been long since exceeded.
And surely inflammation of the heart of otherwise healthy young people counts as a dangerous side effect?
Caution is justified all the more if citizens don’t fall into a risk group, i.e. every healthy person under 50. Members of the healthy under-50 club, according to experts, have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident; children are more likely to be struck by lightning.
Few seem to appreciate that the approval the vaccines currently enjoy has been granted on an emergency basis only. This must be welcome news for the vulnerable if the vaccines are as effective as they tell us. But the fact remains that there have been no trials to determine long-term side effects – there can’t have been. On that basis alone, an ordinary healthy person remains perfectly within the boundaries of common sense, to say nothing of his rights, to take a wait-and-see approach.
An abundance of caution, after all, has been the approach public health officials have counselled or enforced at every turn: masks, social distance, closing places of business, schools and worship, border closures, restrictions on social gatherings, loved ones excluded from hospitals and so on.
Caution, caution, caution.
Now, all of a sudden, people are meant to throw caution to the wind to take an experimental vaccine?
This is mixed messaging, to say the least.
The Nova Scotia government, for example, has further diminished its trustworthiness by operating a vaccine campaign that never advises individuals to weigh risks and benefits with their personal physician or loved ones before taking the decision to be vaccinated, even though this is the advice you find on the federal government website.
This practice, known as ‘informed consent,’ is one that any doctor will tell you is a fundamental principle of medical ethics. If governments are not constrained by normative ethical principles when dispensing medical advice, instead of pushing a one-size-fits-all approach, on what basis do we owe them our unquestioning trust?
When someone proposes to introduce radical measures of some kind, the burden of proof falls on their side of the argument. No such burden has been met by the government of Nova Scotia, and governments in other provinces. Citizens weren’t consulted about lockdowns – a radical step if there ever was one – and they’ve begun to notice the damage those undemocratic policies have done to children, shut-ins, businesses, overall morale, and to the health-care sector itself.
When so much has been asked already, the law of diminishing returns was bound to kick in at some point.
Some welcome the vaccine precisely as a passport – a passport out of lockdown. Others wonder why they should trust the judgment of a government that erred so badly in their proposal and enforcement of draconian lockdowns in the first place.
These realities don’t seem to have been expressed by any of the political class or in the media. Just the opposite. Many are so certain that the unvaccinated are irrational, irresponsible or both, that they’re prepared to violate their civil rights and legalize discriminatory policy against them in the form of what Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin’s newspeak calls a “ScotiaPass.”
Whose counsel will he seek before he implements this unprecedented measure?
A whole host of experts, surely. Priests and other religious leaders, ethicists, lawyers, human rights advocates, social workers, police, historians, doctors across disciplines, an external ombudsman encouraged to criticize findings and so on. A referendum will be called to make sure there is a large consensus.
Here’s the strategy outlined by Rankin, quoted by CBC News:
“If we see a surge in cases, we’ll do whatever we have to do to keep Nova Scotians safe,” said Rankin, adding that could mean forcing people to use the ScotiaPass system to access services.
“That would be in consultation with [Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health], looking at our epidemiology.”
They will seek the counsel of the chief medical officer. That’s it.
This is the same Strang who in June had the temerity to justify supporting an injunction to prevent anti-lockdown protests as a way of preventing the spread, not of the disease but of “misinformation.”
This kind of reasoning is symptomatic of a creeping authoritarianism in the decisions being taken by the Nova Scotia government under cover of Strang’s advice. This is far too much power for one man to wield.
I voiced my opposition to Rankin’s announcement of the ScotiaPass on his Twitter feed. No less than two people wished me dead and others liked this idea. One of my well-wishers attacked me for my Christian faith which, in his view, made it impossible for me to have a credible view on the subject.
The other gentleman, who didn’t attack my faith, manfully apologized and deleted his tweet after I appealed to the better angels of his nature. We’ve all said things in the heat of the moment we regret, and it’s much easier to yield to that temptation when dealing with an anonymous person online. In what seemed a dark moment, here was a reason to hope that those better angels will indeed prevail.
But this level of hostility is the kind of environment the government’s actions have encouraged. Our response to the pandemic is exposing ugly fault lines in our society, making us suspicious of family, friends and neighbours with whom we disagree. With the vaccine pass, they plan to enshrine these divisions in law.
The government is campaigning on a policy that will single out and vilify a huge segment of the population for exercising their right to make their own medical choices. This represents the transition from public shaming to outright discrimination. Students of history will recognize the pattern and shudder.
On Twitter, I was struck by how poorly informed and weak the arguments were defending the passport. Some claimed it was like a driver’s licence, others that it was no different to putting people in prison who had committed a crime, others that it was like laws forbidding smoking in public places. Drawing comparisons of this kind shows how fuzzy our thinking has become under the duress of lockdown culture.
There was also reason for hope. At the time of writing, my tweet had 280 likes. The tweet that opposed mine immediately as a reply had only 40 or so. The feedback in the feed is overwhelmingly against the proposed measures. Another straw poll of nearly 2,500 Haligonians showed that over 75 per cent opposed the idea of vaccine passports.
And yet, the propaganda continues. The day after the government announcement of vaccine passports, a front-page article in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, rather than simply reporting on the announcement, had an opinion piece locked and loaded, quoting strangers at random who thought the vaccine passport would be a good idea. At no point does the article say what those surveyed thought a vaccine passport was beyond some nebulous thing that will make people feel ‘safe.’
The promise of safety itself may be an illusion. We’re learning more and more about how these vaccines don’t stop transmission, as institutions like the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now admit. If that’s true, vaccine passports will be giving the vaccinated a false sense of security, to say the least. Conversely, if vaccines protect them, what do they have to fear?
And if they’re simply limited to places like gyms and restaurants and not, say, places of work, how effective will they really be?
I’m in the gym for an hour; I’m at work all day. The highest vector of transmission is the household – will we eventually need a passport to go home?
One can’t help but think that now the vaccine rollout has been so extensive, the government has identified what it thinks of as dangerous dissidents in the ranks of the unvaccinated. For what else can we surmise, now that the wisdom of those formerly reassuring and reasonable words from the PM have been forgotten?
Vaccine passports appear to be an attempt to blackmail the hesitant into getting vaccinated. Their prospect also seems to signal to the vaccinated that their compliance makes them, to crib George Orwell, more equal than others. Not only will they have more privileges than their unvaccinated counterparts, but they will also deserve them and may feel free to lord it over the less equal and should do – after all, it’s for their own good.
This brings me to the third and final aspect of public health thinking in Nova Scotia and elsewhere that I would like to highlight: children are being used as a means to exert emotional leverage over the vaccine-hesitant and manipulate vaccinated parents into shaming them.
At this point, the fear-mongering rhetoric that claims vaccination will protect our children should come as no surprise. This is the same government that closed schools without any evidence of dangerous spread within them and issued mask mandates for children as young as four against WHO advice.
No child has died from COVID-19 in Canada without severe comorbidities – the seasonal flu poses a greater danger – yet Strang has recently circulated a letter to parents urging every eligible person to vaccinate themselves in order to ‘protect’ our children.
A particularly heartbreaking story out of Nova Scotia that attracted national and international attention was the death of 19-year-old Acadia kinesiology undergraduate Kai Matthews, an apparent victim of what his parents have called “Covid-blinders.” Kai died of meningitis B, treatable with early intervention, in large part because he was treated from the word go as a potential COVID patient. By the time they got the diagnosis right, it was too late.
When you hear his parents bravely tell this story, expertly and sensitively handled by Trish Wood on her brilliant podcast, it’s very difficult to believe that he would have died had it not been for the hyper-focus of our health-care system on a virus that poses no danger to a healthy young man like Kai.
If we don’t reject vaccine passports, one wonders how much further down the slippery slope we will slide? How much more needless damage and division will our leaders cause? And what will they come up with next?
If you can force people to take vaccines, why not force them to donate blood? There’s virtually no risk to the donor, it’s always urgent and would save many lives. There are a hundred such hypotheticals in the offing if we allow governments to legalize discrimination against the unvaccinated.
Discrimination can’t be the price of safety. When those in power begin to ‘explore’ vaccine passes, justify restrictions on movement and speech because people might say something they disagree with (aka ‘misinformation’), and exploit our protective instincts towards our children by drumming up unwarranted fear, we begin to see what absolute power looks like in the flesh. We start to appreciate the simple yet profound truth of that pithy maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We should not put up with the legalized discrimination governments are proposing. The authoritarians have overplayed their hand. The mask is off. The rot has been exposed – I hope.
James Bryson holds a PhD from Cambridge University, is a former SSHRC postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer at McGill University, a Research Associate of the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, and currently a Humboldt Fellow at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
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