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Despite clearly not offering perfect protection, COVID-19 vaccines are the most effective measure at our disposal to curb infection and reduce the number of severe cases requiring hospitalisation. There’s no getting around that.

Because of its value as a public health tool, I am in favour of vaccine passports. I think it’s very reasonable to require proof of vaccination to engage in behaviours that put people at a higher risk of infection, like eating at restaurants, going to the movies, or attending a major sporting event. 

Given that the vaccines are offered at no cost, and there are programs in place to support people financially who have a reaction to the vaccine (though they could certainly be improved), I would say that generally speaking, it’s not a burdensome requirement.

However, an approach that the Quebec government is currently toying with in order to increase the vaccination rate goes a step too far.

Recently, the government of Quebec announced that they will be moving forward with a tax on unvaccinated Quebeccers. Though the number hasn’t been decided on just yet, Premier Legault said that it will be “significant.” 

While it might not be clear to everyone at first glance, taxing individuals based on their health choices, if it were not challenged in the courts, would serve a serious blow to our public health care system. 

One of the underlying values that is (supposed) to inform our understanding and justification for our public health care system is universalization, the idea that all are entitled to a certain standard of living, or in this case, a level of basic health care. 

This has been under attack for many decades. But despite changing public sentiment, universality is still a small part of our public health care system. For instance, while we lack universal dental, vision, or pharmaceutical coverage, no matter how many times you go to the emergency room, you will not be charged at the point of service for those visits. The same goes for your family doctor, you can make as many appointments with them as you want, but you still won’t be charged a dime for those appointments. That is universality in action.

It’s important to note that universality is not the same as equality. If we account for people’s different demographic differences, we can see that we do not use healthcare services equally. For instance, older adults use a lot more of our health care services than younger people do, as do people who are considered clinically obese, just to name two examples. 

The beauty of a universalized system however is that despite people’s differences, we choose to value them as individuals, as human beings, rather than a number on a balance sheet. That is what universalisation affords; human dignity.

Universalism is a dying idea in the context of Canadian healthcare, but Quebec’s proposed tax on the unvaccinated deals it a death blow that I haven’t seen in my (albeit short) lifetime.

While I have received both doses of my vaccine, as well as my booster, and I encourage people I know and those who read this to do the same, the choice to not get it does not make someone less human. The unvaccinated are not less deserving of dignity, respect, or the ability to access health care services as a human right. 

Forcing the unvaccinated to face a financial penalty, levied on them by the government, for their health decisions is not far removed from an “obesity tax,” or a “smokers tax,” as the same logic applies in those instances too. Arguing that your ability to access something as fundamental as health care should be assessed based on your worthiness or your virtuousness is a very slippery slope.

To address a counterargument now before I inevitably get emails about it: yes, I think it is wrong that diabetics have to pay for insulin. Also, I understand that there is a slight difference between those who face health care hardships because of their choices versus how they were born, but the response to that shouldn’t be to deprive more people of public health care. That run’s entirely contrary to universality. We need to fight for our public health care system to be expanded, not shrunk.

Hopefully, the Quebec government does not go through with this decision. Since the announcement, vaccine appointments in Quebec have shot up dramatically, so if the point was to scare people into getting their shots, mission accomplished I suppose. The official opposition in Quebec also does not see the province going through with it, but how much information do they necessarily have?

Whatever the case may be, I just hope that universality can come back into the Canadian health care conversation sooner rather than later, as lives truly do depend on it now and many more will in the future.