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Vaccine passport
Individuals on the University of Ottawa campus must be double vaccinated since Sept. 7. Image: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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Professor Amir Attaran, Dr. Raywat Deonandan and professor Carissima Mathen talk vaccine hesitancy, vaccine passports, and freedom of movement 

Starting Sept. 22, Ontario will require proof of vaccination and a piece of ID to enter certain businesses and settings . The province plans on replacing the paper/PDF vaccination certificate with a unique individualized QR code and verification app. 

This news came out on Sept. 1, the day Quebec’s digital vaccine passport came into effect. Jim Watson, Ottawa’s mayor, wrote a letter to the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, demanding a new proof of vaccination program. 

“As we have seen in jurisdictions across Canada and around the world, when a program of this nature is implemented, it is followed by an increase in uptake for the vaccine. As we enter this final and crucial stretch of the vaccination campaign, I believe this tool would be the most effective to get us across the finish line,” explained Watson in the letter. 

With the fourth wave of COVID-19 upon us, and COVID-19 cases steadily rising in Ottawa over the last few weeks, experts had raised concerns regarding Ontario’s lack of an effective vaccine passport system.

In an email to the Fulcrum, Amir Attaran, professor in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, made his feelings clear on the utility of the  vaccination passport. 

“Proof of vaccination is absolutely, indisputably essential to increasing the number of vaccinated persons, reducing the number of contacts between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, and in turn reducing both the magnitude and duration of a fourth wave,” wrote Attaran. “Antigen testing persons instead of requiring vaccination is not a satisfactory alternative either, since persons can be infectious before testing positive.”

According to Dr. Raywat Deonandan, a researcher and scientist at the U of O, the vaccine passports won’t solve all of our problems, but the program aims to encourage two types of non-vaccinated individuals: the vaccine hesitant and the apathetic to get the jab. 

Vaccine hesitancy is a term used to designate individuals who are hesitant about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Reasons surrounding vaccine hesitancy usually include complacency, lack of confidence in vaccines, the fear of rare adverse reactions to the vaccines or simply the lack of accessibility to a vaccination centre.  

“Maybe you can’t get time off work, maybe they can’t get childcare, maybe they don’t have a vehicle,” explained Deonandan, during an interview in regards to accessibility to vaccines. 

On the apathetics, Deonandan notes that the younger demographic believes vitamin D and fitness regimes will keep them protected from dangerous COVID-19 outcomes.

“That’s the population the vaccine passports are targeted towards because up to this point, there hasn’t really been a real reason for them to seek vaccination, if they don’t think they need it,” explained Deonandan. 

When asked how these new changes could affect out-of-province and international students, Carissima Mathen, a law professor at U of O, assured that as long as a patient’s vaccination combination has been authorized and deemed safe and effective by Health Canada, there should be no issues regarding travel. 

However, it only gets dicier for those who have received vaccines not approved by Health Canada.

“If you’re going to study at [the University of Ottawa] and you are coming in from Quebec and you are not fully vaccinated: get fully vaccinated. It isn’t complicated and it’s not administrative restraint, there’s no restrictions on traveling between provinces yet. The restriction is getting onto campus. And right now the rule is you must be fully vaccinated using a Health Canada approved vaccine,” Deonandan said. 

In an Instagram poll, the Fulcrum asked students of the U of O if they were in favour of receiving vaccine passports. While over 80 per cent of students were in favour, several others voiced their concerns regarding their rights and freedom of movement. 

Deonandan responded to these comments calling them “complete nonsense.” 

“If you go to a bar and they check your ID at the door to make sure you’re of age, does anyone complain about privacy? You’re showing a bouncer your name, your address and your date of birth. That’s a far bigger privacy breach. What vaccine passports look like is, here’s a QR code that a business will scan that goes to a central database that lets them know:  yes or no is this person vaccinated,” he explained. 

Deonandan worries we have failed to communicate the proper distinction between individual risk and population risk in this pandemic. 

He says we all have certain rights in society, and while keeping ourselves healthy and taking our vitamin D can keep us from getting sick, our chances of passing the infection are not lowered. 

“So, as long as you have a [possibility] of getting infected, I have a probability of getting infected. And this hell does not end until this thing goes away at the population level. So, if it means restricting your movement, I’m fully on board with restricting your movement,” Deonandan said. 

When asked what his message is to those who do not agree with vaccine passports, and who argue they infringe on their rights of free movement, this is what he had to say:

“We already limit your freedom,” he laughed. 

“Even though we supposedly live in a free society there are limits to freedom, because sometimes it’s against the public good to allow absolute liberty of individual choice. Individual choices have to be constrained sometimes for the public good. And this is one of those cases,” Deonandan explained.