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As the pandemic rages on, the political debate moves to the supermarket aisle

In the midst of a deadly third wave of the pandemic — nearly 2,000 Canadians have died of COVID-19 so far in January — the fiercest political debate going on at the federal level concerns the state of the nation’s store shelves.

At issue is a new rule that says anyone driving a transport truck across Canada’s border with the United States must be vaccinated. That rule is now being enforced by both the Canadian and American governments.

The federal Conservatives are loudly opposed and point to images of empty grocery store shelves as they accuse the Liberal government of imposing unnecessary hardship.

“If you walk into a grocery store and you see products on the shelves, thank a trucker,” Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative party’s shadow finance minister, said last week. “If you walk into a grocery store and you see empty shelves, thank Justin Trudeau.”

But Conservatives say their concerns go beyond supply issues — they’re also worried about “freedom.”

With a convoy of aggrieved drivers now headed for Ottawa, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis tweeted the hashtag #TruckersForFreedom and called the vaccine rule “nonsensical.”

Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer accused Trudeau of “attacking personal liberty.”

Both Poilievre and Genuis refer to the border policy as a “vaccine vendetta” — essentially suggesting the mandate is part of some long-held grudge Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden have against truckers. (Or maybe Conservative wordsmiths just liked the alliteration and didn’t think too hard about the meaning of the word “vendetta.”)

Some products might not be as abundant as they were before the pandemic and some things might now cost more — for several reasons.

An embrace of ‘radical individualism’

But even if the vaccine mandate for cross-border transport ends up contributing to those problems, Poilievre’s simplistic summation can just as easily be turned around. If the shelves are full, thank a vaccinated trucker. If the shelves are empty, thank an unvaccinated trucker.

Federal Conservatives appear to be dug in hard against all forms of vaccine mandates. Where once Conservatives might have gotten behind vaccination requirements as a matter of personal and mutual responsibility, they have instead come down on the side of “radical individualism,” to borrow a phrase from Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool.

“We think the best way to get people vaccinated is through persuasion, not intimidation,” Poilievre said last week. “We don’t believe in robbing people’s freedoms. We believe in convincing them through data, science and logic.”

as the pandemic rages on the political debate moves to the supermarket aisle
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on November 29, 2021 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

All this talk of a “vendetta” and “freedom” might make it even harder for some to hear that “logic.”

Ideally, rational explanation would prevail. But what happens when that isn’t enough?

In the face of a contagious and potentially deadly disease — one that can evolve as it circulates — how long should society defer to an individual’s “freedom” to remain unvaccinated? What should be done when an individual’s choices put others at risk?

Vaccine mandates do invoke a trade-off by placing the general welfare ahead of unfettered individual choice, even at the risk of alienating some of the unvaccinated. When the Trudeau government decided to move ahead last year with vaccine mandates for public servants and air and train travellers, it might have seemed like a dramatic step.

But mandates might now be the moderate position.

The anger of the vaccinated

Days after Quebec Premier Francois Legault floated the possibility of an annual tax for the unvaccinated, Maru Public Opinion released a survey that found 61 per cent of Canadians would support forcing the unvaccinated to pay the full cost of their hospitalization if they are admitted with COVID.

Thirty-seven per cent of respondents polled would go much farther — they would actually bar the unvaccinated from hospitals. Twenty-seven per cent said they would support a five-day jail sentence.

Maru didn’t ask about a vaccine mandate for truckers, but 77 per cent of respondents said they felt it was acceptable for the unvaccinated to be restricted from “entering public spaces and premises such as restaurants, cinemas, libraries, liquor and cannabis stores, and various retail outlets.”

The Conservatives have ended up more or less aligned with the 23 per cent who oppose such measures. But the support of the vaccinated majority doesn’t quite give the Liberals carte blanche to impose mandates without care or concern.

The vaccine mandate for truckers shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat for shortages or higher prices attributable to other problems. The Canadian Trucking Alliance — which “strongly disapproves” of protests on public roadways — says the vaccination rate among truckers is on par with the rest of the population and it remains to be seen how many holdouts will continue to refuse the vaccines. If real impacts do result from the mandate, efforts should be made to distinguish between mere inconvenience and serious hardship.

But vaccine mandates have run into trouble — or have failed to materialize — when governments were unprepared to deal with the consequences. In Quebec, a proposal to require vaccination for health care workers collapsed when it became apparent the government couldn’t deal with the number of unvaccinated workers who would be put out of work.

Some kind of shortfall probably was inevitable and foreseeable. In that event, the question becomes whether government did enough to ensure the mandate can be implemented safely.

Reports of a crisis associated with the trucker mandate are premature. The vast majority of vaccinated Canadians might support mandates right now. But Liberals can’t take that support for granted; if there are significant disruptions or costs, could the vaccinated conclude that the policy is more trouble than it’s worth?

Vaccine mandates might be defended on principle. They might increase the number of people getting their shots. They might ultimately save lives and lower this pandemic’s sickening death toll.

But mandates have had little impact on the vaccinated so far. Conservatives seem to be hoping they can rally unvaccinated truckers and those vaccinated Canadians whose resolve might be shaken by a frustrating trip to the grocery store.

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