Vaccine Heresy

While the invasion of our capital city by a minority of anti-Covid vaccine mandate and restrictions protesters was concerning, I am perhaps even more worried by the majority’s instinctively hostile reaction to it, and more broadly to any questioning of the government response to the pandemic. When we lose the ability to hear the other side, one of the key senses that enables a democratic society to function is numbed.

I see it in the extremely unsympathetic media coverage of the protests, with interviews of local residents and business owners adversely affected by the protests vastly outnumbering interviews with the protesters themselves speaking of their grievances, or with the too easy dismissal of the entire protest because of the abhorrent actions and beliefs of a few of its members. When our local paper, the Low Down, ran a balanced story that gave voice to both sides of this debate, it got flak from many readers, and felt the need to repeatedly reaffirm their conviction in the rightness of vaccination.

I see it in my personal and social media interactions with people whose faith in vaccines and restrictions has seemingly immunized them from nuance and critical thinking. When I make a relatively uncontroversial point like, “The restrictions we are now living under are unprecedented in modern times,” I get responses that try to deny a reality that should be self-evident. And when it is suggested by myself and others that the Omicron wave sadly showed that vaccination was not the bulwark against Covid infection and transmission that we hoped it would be (but thankfully still kept many vaccinated out of hospital), others still try to argue that vaccination is our “silver bullet”, our one and only true path out of the pandemic, and is substantially more than a personal choice to protect yourself from more severe illness.

I get it. We’ve never lived through a pandemic before and this can all be very scary. Thousands have died in Canada, and millions around the world. Those who push back against government mandates only make it scarier, and we generally react to fear with anger. This particular group of dissidents who had their way with our capital city provided a group to focus our anger on, and they are a group easy for liberals to hate: largely white, rural, uneducated, and blue-collar, they are a shocking contradiction in a diverse metropolis abundant with white-collar workers. By denying the necessity of extreme government measures, they prove that they are at best misinformed, unscientific, selfish, and irresponsible; at worst racist, thuggish louts, undeserving of their continued freedom or of medical treatment should they fall ill with Covid.

For most of our society, science is our only religion, and vaccination is its holy rite. We bare our arms and offer ourselves to science, taking its creation into our very blood in a way few other technologies penetrate. Thus we prove our faith. Those who refuse this rite are treated like heretics. How could they possibly refuse something so mundane as a needle, and yet so beneficial to society as a vaccine? What the hell is their problem?

Many people end their thought process at this point of righteous indignation –  unfortunately a more and more familiar mental state in this age when dialogue rarely goes beyond social media name calling. For those who would like to try to better understand the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy, I highly recommend reading the exhaustive four part series Needle Points, written by Canadian Dr. Norman Doidge, himself a believer in vaccination. It might convince you that someone can have less than full trust in the safety and necessity of vaccines and still be a rational human being. You might still disagree with them, but at least you may see them as someone you can have a relatively calm conversation with.

I did get two doses of Covid vaccines, and am glad for the protection they offer, but I also lump myself into the “hesitant” category. Vaccines in general are not for me the “no brainer” they are for many. They are a potentially serious medical intervention, and I don’t like to turn to Western medicine, which tends towards a harsh “attack thy enemy” approach rather than the softer, more holistic approach of other healing modalities, unless I feel the intervention is really needed.[1] In the case of Covid, I felt it was.

But I don’t judge those who’ve made a different decision. I don’t see the choice against vaccination as proof of some essential character deficiency, or necessarily the product of misinformation. I find it sad whenever I hear of friendships falling out over this issue. After I wrote World War Covid, my mom asked someone I’ve been friends with since grade six if we were still friends. He said, “Of course,” but the fact that she felt like she needed to ask is telling of the state we’re in. If you’ve fired friends over this issue, then either they weren’t very good friends to begin with, or you’ve elevated this issue far beyond its true import. Vaccines have been raised to the level of religion and politics and money – issues you tread carefully around lest irreconcilable disagreement erupts. But they’re really not that big a deal.

Basically the choice to get vaccinated or not comes down to trust in authority. Some populations have historical reasons to have less trust in authority than others, and some people, such as those who’ve experienced Adverse Childhood Events, naturally struggle with trust more than others. That explains why 15% less of the total population in the US is double vaccinated than in Canada; the Canadian government has proven itself more trustworthy over time by looking out for some Canadians, through Medicare and other strands of the social safety net, whereas the US government has left Americans more to look out for themselves. Americans see a government that doesn’t seem to care much about their welfare, so why should they trust it?

For myself, my distrust of authority is more foundational. I had a happy childhood, and I have much faith in the general good intentions of those in government. But I have a deep distrust of the entire worldview of modern Western society. I look at the effects of this worldview, in all its individualistic, rationalizing, hubristic, grasping, homogenizing, separate, centralizing, materialistic, dehumanizing, oppositional, death-denying, nature-hating, beauty-killing, body-loathing, future-focussed, spiritually impoverished, competitive, distracted, human-exceptional, reductive, mechanistic glory, and I want no part of it. This is the society that has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe, bristled the world with nuclear weapons, doubled down on wealth inequality, devised a financial system that forbids any considerations other than profit, imposed colonisation upon most of the planet, developed political systems that breed polarization, created new diseases of affluence as quickly as medicine has dispensed with the old, and continues to push more technology as the solution to every problem brought about by technology in the first place. You could say that our society leans too heavily towards left brain awareness.[2] While there are admittedly some bright spots to Western civilization (recent progress towards gender, sexual orientation, and racial equality; free speech; the rule of law; elections), on the whole it doesn’t inspire trust, and talk of its supposed superiority calls to mind what Gandhi reportedly said when asked what he thought of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” So when the same establishment of corporate and government leaders who created this hot mess tell me, “Don’t worry, we’ve tested this medicine and it’s perfectly safe and effective,” I naturally have my doubts.

The past few months have been a fertile time for me, as my mind has been tilled by fresh perspectives, and new seeds have been planted. (Forgive the attempt at agricultural metaphor – I am a farmer, after all.) As an avowed lefty, to hear conservatives saying things – about vaccines and the trucker protest specifically – that I actually agreed with was an experience in cognitive dissonance. I’ve spoken to other lefty friends, who also have misgivings about vaccines and Covid mandates, and they feel the same way. It has offered me a window into conservative thought that I think has been mind-broadening.[3] In the same way that environmentalists serve an important role in reminding us to look at the ecological impacts of our actions, right-wing thinkers remind us of the importance of things like freedom and civil liberties – which we sometimes take too much for granted. No one group has all the answers, and no one can look at things from every angle. That’s why a diversity of opinions, matched with the ability to listen to them, is so beneficial to achieving a political consensus that carries our best ideas forward.

I am now less politically partisan than I have ever been in my life; the lines between left and right are blurring and shifting. This pandemic has been politicized, of course, and for awhile I followed my tribe of lefties towards a hard pro-vaccine, pro-restrictions position. But now I am starting to realize that “good” and “bad” beliefs don’t adhere together in neat little packages, labelled “left” and “right”; that good ideas can be found on both sides of the political divide, and it’s our job to think for ourselves and pick and choose from both sides what we believe in. The hyper-partisanship of the pandemic has actually led me to a less partisan place.

The trucker protest was about a lot of things, some of them downright ugly or nonsensical, but one worthwhile question it did bring to the table was this: how do we find a reasonable balance between safety and freedom? I think most people can agree that focussing solely on as much safety from Covid as possible would lead to a lot of unwanted consequences in other areas of our lives, just as I think we can also agree that allowing complete freedom in the face of Covid would be a costly mistake. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s only by having a healthy public airing of all opinions that we can arrive at that ideal point of balance. But people who lean towards the side of freedom have not felt heard during the past two years; they have felt shut down, censored, demeaned, ostracized, and ridiculed. The trucker protest was an eruption of 23 months of building anger and frustration over this. Was it often messy, offensive, and threatening? For sure. Was is predictable, in this climate of repression of opinion and action? Certainly.

The hateful reaction of the majority of Canadians against this protest, and the invocation of the Emergencies Act, has only made things worse. I do not follow right-wing media, but I am sure that conservatives – rightly or wrongly – feel they are the victims of a double-standard. They have noted a gentler tone from the media and government towards indigenous people blockading railway lines, or environmentalists blocking pipelines and logging roads, or protesters toppling statues, and wonder why they are so fiercely condemned for blockading Ottawa or “defacing” (i.e. outfitting with a ball cap, a sign, and a Canadian flag) a statue of Terry Fox. While it’s true that the police seemed to treat the trucker protest with more restraint than some anti-globalization protests of recent memory, the public discourse against them has been much more vitriolic. This has only cemented the idea in the minds of the right, many of whom hail from the west, that they are outsiders in the Canadian family.

And while many cheered on the application of the Emergencies Act, the more thoughtful paused to worry about how this legislation could be used against them the next time they join a movement they are passionate about and take to the streets in large numbers.

If we could put aside our hatred and fear and anger, could we find some common ground with those saying that the state has overstepped itself with Covid mandates? I would have thought that we could all agree, as a liberal, rights-based, democratic society, that strongly coercing people (through the threat of job loss or other sticks) into accepting a medical treatment would be out of bounds. That our bodies and what we choose to put in them would be an inviolable personal decision. That those in favour of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her uterus would also support anyone’s right to choose what to inject into themselves.

I was wrong, of course – in the short term. But will I be wrong in the long run? Has a transformation in attitude already begun? An early February Angus Reid poll found 54% of Canadians agreed with the statement: “It’s time to end restrictions and let people self-isolate if they’re at risk.” Sweden – which lefties like me often like to look to for guidance – has decided against recommending Covid vaccines for kids under 12, arguing that the benefits do not outweigh the risks. Finland and Norway have both taken similar approaches.

It’s obviously still a highly divisive issue, but it does feel like the tide is shifting. We are beginning to realize that this virus isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and we need to learn to live with it, and get on with our lives, managing the risk as best we can. Governments too seem to sense this shift, and are dismantling passport regimes and other restrictions as quickly as they were erected. The Quebec government misread the public this January and had to quickly walk back their curfew. It makes one wonder how much governments were really following science when they first instituted various restrictions, and how much they were simply responding to public sentiment. Now that that sentiment is shifting, so are their policies. How much do governments follow the science, and how much do they follow the polls? Science doesn’t get them re-elected.

Unfortunately, partisanship does tend to get them re-elected. But I hope that we as Canadians can rise above that, and demand better from our leaders. I hope that our leaders realize their responsibility to bring citizens together, not divide them, and that we can learn to see past our prejudices, accept our fallibility, and listen openly to the other side, seeking not victory in the field of verbal battle and righteousness, but simple understanding and empathy for people who may look, act, or think differently than you do.


[1] Just to be clear, I do recognize the benefits that Western medicine has brought us. I was a big fan of it as it was saving my wife and unborn child’s lives with an emergency C-section, and when it saved my dad’s life with heart surgery. And it has been particularly effective at pushing back the infectious diseases that have been the scourge of humanity for millennia. But its reductive approach is ill-suited to dealing with more complex biological conundrums, of which health is a subset.

[2] To know what I’m talking about, read The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist

[3] I’d recommend the Substack and podcast, Lean Out, for some very thoughtful explorations on issues that have been mostly abandoned by the left and are only talked about on the right, but really should be universal concerns:


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6 thoughts on “Vaccine Heresy”

  1. The fresh air and balance you bring, and lack of vitriol, is much appreciated – especially in looking at such an important issue as the pandemic. We’ll need years to sort out what happened and it’s significance.

  2. Thank you, Sean, for another deeply insightful, carefully-researched essay. In this time when mainstream media is presenting almost exclusively one viewpoint, it is tremendously helpful to have an intelligent, unbiased rendition of facts delivered with such humanity. I am about to pay for a yearly subscription to your page as the work you do is both necessary and priceless, and I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken to produce your superbly articulated observations. I dearly hope that others will also consider supporting you so that you are able to continue to share – we need a reasoned and compassionate voice in these trying times.

  3. I enjoy reading a thoughtful response to the historically significant experiences we are living through right now. I felt uneasy with the extreme gap that opened up in media coverage and between opinions I was hearing from both sides. I don’t like to classify myself as “vaccine hesitant” because even that term seems polarizing; I would say I do my best to use critical thinking to wade through medical recommendations and political influence to make choices that benefit not just my own family but also society at large. I don’t think equating the support of absolute bodily autonomy in regards to pro choice and vaccines in general is possible. The consequences of each choice is vastly different. Still, I agree that forced vaccination for a new/evolving virus and restriction of movement for citizens is unprecedented and it potentially opens floodgates.
    I felt I understood the original intent and indignation of the trucker protest, but over time, their message was drowned in extremism and odd, unrelated external influence. When I asked a Wakefielder why they were sharing info from Pat King’s site, the response was that the “movement was bigger than one man who put his racism aside to speak up for all.” And many others blamed fake news for suggesting the convoy leaders had problematic connections. I just didn’t get it: why did anyone who simply wanted to speak against government mandates join a protest with organizers who had totally different values and goals? Why not start a separate protest that was focused and distanced from these influencers with dangerous opinions?
    And when I heard the backlash about the LD article, I was totally surprised to find out the Wakefield influencer was a Qanon member posing with Trump affiliates. This contextual information changed my view of the article becuase I felt I hadn’t been given all the facts. Again, I just couldn’t understand why the root of the protest–the resistance to government mandates–was being eclipsed by completely unrelated belief systems. I would have preferred to read an op-ed from a local protester who could show a perspective that reflected that boiling point of frustration with our governments. Way too many protesters were ok with making insensitive comparisons to horrific historical oppressions or parroting bizarre nationalist sentiments and scripted taglines. I wanted to find more of the critical thinkers who were looking at both sides, asking questions and making sensible demands of our government representatives. Where were all those middle grounders? I’m guessing the social pressure of choosing a side muffled the voice of reason.

      1. Hey Shawn, another very interesting piece. I must say though that I find I am much more in agreement with Chrissy’s thoughtful, concise and considered comments.
        I am pasting the latest blog from Dr. Deonandan (the same epidemiologist who I referenced in my reply to your last piece)
        One of the tables will not transfer to the comments, so I will provide the link to his blog again so people can see the full post and to explore in his blog why he is very much pro-vaccine(and booster)

        I will also just add that as you mentioned the US has a 15% less double vaccinated population and that is part of the reason that their Covid death rate is 3X more than Canada’s. (The US has had nearly 275 deaths per 100,000 Americans, among the highest rates in developed countries.
        Canada, meanwhile, has sustained fewer than 93 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins. as of Feb 7)

        “Why Should the Vaccinated Care That the Unvaccinated Are Unvaccinated?

        by Raywat Deonandan, PhD
        Epidemiologist & Associate Professor
        University of Ottawa

        (I add my credentials to these COVID-19 blog posts in case they get shared. I want readers to know that my opinion is supposedly an educated and informed one)

        As I write this, my home of Ottawa –and some other parts of the country and the world– is under siege by a fraction of the population who believe their rights are being infringed by rules designed to improve public health, most glaringly the rules around mandatory vaccination for some professions or some activities.

        Presumably most, or at least many, of the protestors are unvaccinated and are directly affected by these rules. But a fair proportion are vaccinated and support the “right to choose.” Their argument is that it should not matter to the vaccinated whether or not others choose to accept vaccination.

        Theirs is a flawed argument. There are multiple reasons that vaccinated people are better served by (a) encouraging more people to become vaccinated, and (b) not wishing to mingle too often with the unvaccinated. Below, I list a few of those reasons.

        But first, there are two important facts to consider. The first fact, as we all know, is that vaccines are not 100% effective at stopping transmission and serious disease. This is especially true for the COVID vaccines in the wake of the Omicron variant. While Omicron has compromised the ability of two doses to prevent actual infection, a third dose greatly restores such protection. (See my earlier post on whether the vaccines still prevent transmission.)

        The second fact is that the more unvaccinated people there are in the community, the more opportunity there is for rampant transmission within those groups. While Omicron has compromised the vaccines’ ability to curb transmission with only two doses, it still remains true that outbreaks are more likely to happen among unvaccinated groups. The Ontario Science Table estimates the risk of infection among the unvaccinated to be more than twice that of the vaccinated.

        With that said, here are five reasons the vaccinated care that others are not yet vaccinated:

        1) The more people who become vaccinated, the more community immunity we have. With Omicron so hyper-contagious, it is unlikely that we can reach true herd immunity. But every person who accepts full vaccination is a bulwark against transmission penetrating into the community. That greater transmission means that our vulnerable loved ones, like children who cannot be vaccinated, or the vaccinated elderly who remain at higher risk for bad outcomes and death, remain at unnecessarily high levels of vulnerability. The more people that get vaccinated, the lower this risk.

        2) Less penetration into the community means that the vaccinated will experience fewer breakthrough infections. And while vaccines offer great protection against infection, hospitalization, and death, that protection is not absolute. So every time the risk of breakthrough infection is raised, the risk of a vaccinated person becoming hospitalized or dying also is raised. The more people who get vaccinated, the lower this risk.

        3) The unvaccinated are “dry tinder” for the runaway fire that is COVID-19. They are more likely to become infected, seriously ill, hospitalized, and to die. Recent data from Public Health Ontario show that the unvaccinated over 40 have over seven times the risk of dying from COVID than do the vaccinated. In fact, in some age groups, the relative risk of dying from not being vaccinated is greater than the risk of getting lung cancer from smoking.

        According to the Ontario Science Table, the unvaccinated have 6 times the risk of being hospitalized than do the vaccinated (2 doses), and over ten times the risk of ending up in the ICU. Therefore, the unvaccinated are more likely to eat up precious health care capacity that the rest of us need for non-COVID emergencies. The more people who get vaccinated, the lower this risk.

        4) Due to both the higher likelihood of being infected and the higher likelihood of carrying a higher viral load, some studies suggest that the unvaccinated pose a higher infection risk directly to the vaccinated. As the authors of one pre-print study concluded, “while risk associated with avoiding vaccination during a virulent pandemic accrues chiefly to the unvaccinated, the choices of these individuals are likely to impact the health and safety of vaccinated individuals in a manner disproportionate to the fraction of unvaccinated individuals in the population.” In fact, the authors computed that the unvaccinated raise the risk of infection for the vaccinated by a factor of over six, beyond, of course, the risk that they themselves pose to other unvaccinated people.

        5) We love you and don’t want you to suffer and die.

        Those who wish to frame this debate as one around personal choice are not incorrect to do so, in the broadest sense. But they are wrong to suggest that the actions of those who choose not to vaccinate do not affect the rest of us. Quite the contrary.”

  4. Very well said sean, thanks for posting. Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harding has recognized the importance of healing. Held a meeting the other day to start a dialogue. He has a long road ahead of him. I kinda lost faith in everything when they closed farmers’ markets for 3 months and imposed severe restrictions ever since….all the while, exempting Costco from all restrictions all together. Kinda made me jealous. thanks george

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