As the convoy protest in Ottawa began nearing the three-week mark, Ottawa police issued a statement that they were going to start issuing criminal charges to those who continued to blockade the streets. In response, one protester was quoted by the Globe and Mail as saying, “they’re [the protestors] going to stay and they’re going to fight for your freedom as long as they possibly can.”
It is this definition of freedom – what constitutes it, what is being restricted, whose freedoms are being referred to – that has become threatening.
These blockades of streets and border crossings to the U.S. have led to the first ever use of the Emergencies Act by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who despite facing criticism for not doing enough previously, is now facing harsh criticism for potentially going too far.
The right to protest is “a right to communicate in a public place; it is not a right to impose anything on the public by force. It’s a right to speak, not to take the audience hostage.” It is a legally guaranteed and constitutionally entrenched right and as such these convoy protests were perfectly legal. However, they crossed the line of legal protesting when they began to close off roads and border crossings (causing large trade delays) in the name of freedom.
This movement has “become an unlikely cause célèbre for extreme far-right movements and anti-vaxxers around the world.” For example, three strategies often found in “ascendant right-wing movements” are present in these convoy protests: first, they are ‘anti-elitist’ claiming to represent the ‘real people’; second, they oppose the ‘authoritarian’ arm of the state which they believe, is ‘forcing’ them (or giving them no choice) but to become vaccinated; and third, there are direct attacks towards media institutions that disagree with their ideals.
However, perhaps the biggest mistake made by political elites and the public writ large, was to accept the belief that those who hold these ideas are “the product of a narrow fringe.” For despite the blatant racist, fascist, and authoritarian views and symbols present in these protests, there is a requirement for analysts studying these protests to separate that section of the protesters from those who are tired of vaccine mandates and lockdowns.
In 2019, vaccine hesitancy was considered one of the top 10 threats to global health according to the World Health Organization (WHO); who also identified that the forces behind such hesitancy and barriers “include[d] logistics, as well as complex psychological, social, political, and cultural factors.”
Disproportionately, a majority of studies surrounding vaccine hesitancy are focused on more developed countries, highlighting a gap that requires more research on vaccine hesitancy in lower and middle income countries.
Importantly, it is necessary “to distinguish between populations that are hard to vaccinate because of their low demand and populations that are hard to reach because of supply issues, as these groups will need different strategies.”
So, while global vaccination rates begin to plateau, there is a very different threat at hand to those who oppose vaccine mandates in Canada in comparison to vaccine hesitancy in different areas of the world. In addressing global vaccination levels, this is a stark reminder that a universal pro-vaccine approach will do more harm than good.
Yet, this same logic applies in Canada too. Is vaccine hesitancy a determinant of low supply or low demand? If it is low demand, what is the connection to the anti-globalist and anti-government intervention ideas that were found in these protests? Is this also connected to areas that have historically low vaccination supply in Canada?
Understanding this can better address the large opposition to vaccine mandates in Canada. For starters, it must be clarified that these mandates were a tool used to incentivize Canadians to get vaccinated or to face consequences. However, as with most policies, mandates such as these have “provoke[d] concerns about balancing individual choice and liberty with disease prevention.”
Therefore, the question here becomes not whether these mandates infringe on one’s liberty because to an extent they do; the question rather is how much liberty are people willing to give up in order to address COVID-19? In this instance, those who oppose such pandemic restrictions are arguing that they refuse to give up any ounce of freedom no matter the cost to public good.
Combining Science and Policy: Evidence-based policy making has contributed to vaccine hesitancy
Since the 1970s, the common approach for policy-making has been a risk-based decision-making (RBDM) approach that employs linear-instrumental-rationality, such that scientific evidence has become an instrument for rational policy-making. This methodology was used during the pandemic to try and develop public engagement for lockdowns and vaccine mandates by presenting scientific evidence for policymaking – an approach also used when trying to develop climate policy.
An issue emerges however, when the science does not align with the misinformation that spreads on the internet and social media. In connection, some policy scholars have “identif[ied] a disconnect between, on the one hand, how scientists and analysts working in the fields of health and environmental policy envisage the science-policy interface, and on the other, what the broader policy sciences say about how evidence-based policy can and does actually proceed.”
In contrast, a resilience-based approach would include different evidence assessment methods “under a single conceptual framework while being, in certain contexts, more politically and tactically potent.” Furthermore, this approach “can provide significant normative transparency concerning what is valued and by whom, in ways that RBDM often lacks.”
As such, how could politicians have reframed the public health initiative to get people vaccinated without dismissing those with vaccine opposition, or even hesitancy, to political Siberia? Despite vehemently and fundamentally disagreeing with the arguments of the protesters, denouncing the racist and fascist views of some, these past three weeks demonstrated a watershed moment in Canadian political history. Fueling political divisions does more harm than good, and in this case, has caused more deaths from COVID-19. How far will we be willing to go to be right?