Vaccination sticker reading "I Got My COVID-19 Vaccine." Image credit: Mick Haupt/Unsplash

Recent statistics indicate that significant progress is being made in vaccinating Canadians. But there is still a long way to go in getting people inoculated against COVID-19. In Saskatchewan 24 per cent “remain unconvinced” about getting the shot. Alberta is second with about 17 per cent expressing that view. The rest of Canada comes in at about 12 per cent.    

Let’s begin by drawing a distinction regarding the jab: between the hesitant and the refusers. The “remain unconvinced” numbers are made up of many individuals who, though reluctant now, may ultimately take the shot with whatever amount of enthusiasm. But there are going to be some who are adamant in their “No!”

There are degrees of hesitancy to take COVID vaccines. But most of these people can be reached despite the needless confusion over AstraZeneca. We should try very hard to persuade them using multiple strategies.

For some it’s making the vaccine more accessible. For others it’s being persuaded by a trusted adviser such as a spiritual leader. For still others it’s star influencers like Ryan Reynolds and Michael Bublé with This Is Our Shot Campaign leading the way. 

Some will be directly rewarded such as the employees of EACOM, a company that’s paying its workers to get vaccinated. Some will take the shot to participate in a lottery; for example, the state of Ohio establishing a $1 million purse for the lucky jab recipient.

And on and on until the hesitant, however motivated, agree to be vaccinated. At the same time, we also need to accommodate those who, for legitimate reasons, cannot be inoculated.

The refusers, hopefully a small minority, could produce a very different reaction. Some of these individuals are driven by a world view composed of ultra right-wing fanaticism that rails against science and any whiff of government authority. Many who are anti-maskers are also anti-vaxxers. In the United States a significant percentage are white and live in rural areas. In Canada anti-intellectualism is strongly associated with refusal.

There is, rightly, a plea to treat those who are hesitant with compassion. Anti-vaxxers are unlikely to be viewed in that light. Shaming people, stigmatizing and shunning them as a means of forcing them to change their behaviour is, correctly, condemned.

We’ve come to realize that for any number of issues — obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental health to name just some — shaming individuals can do great harm. Such ostracization can pulverize a sense of worth, lead to individuals avoiding support that would help them, and result in them just giving up.

But, rightly or wrongly, anti-vaxxers may come to be overwhelmingly shunned. Alcoholism, smoking and so on often result from a complex array of factors. These conditions don’t develop from a straightforward choice. In contrast, being vaccinated against COVID is all about one clear decision unequivocally backed by science: get the jab to save your own life and those of others.

We have allowed individuals to choose regarding inoculations. Those refusing to be vaccinated are exercising that choice. But declining the jab will come with consequences, from implications for employment (in at least some settings), to controversial restrictions on travel (vaccine passports — and maybe certificates for some domestic activities), to differential rates for life and health insurance (think of how smokers are treated). Even more serious will be effects on health as the unvaccinated overwhelmingly are the ones who become ill and who may die as the virus continues to circulate spurred on by their very lack of immunization.

And how will the rest of us view them? Here shunning may come to be commonplace. Michelle Obama has been unequivocal: “You wanna hang out with us? Get your vaccine.” If one so admired is so blunt, can the rest of us (vaccinated) be far behind?

There are many ways in which society is divided. A yawning gap may soon open up between the jabbed and the refusers. Such ostracization should not be encouraged. But it may be inevitable. As the world is re-opening, the majority are acting in concert to wrest free from darkness. Those who won’t join in by taking the shot may be left behind in more ways than one.

W. A. Bogart is distinguished university professor and a retired professor of law at the University of Windsor. He is the author/editor of eight books including Off the Street: Legalizing Drugs.

Image credit: Mick Haupt/Unsplash