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Caylan Ford: Like COVID-19, digital passports could be with us forever

Commentary

When a government radically alters the way we live and relate to one another, it should be able to explain, at a minimum, why it is doing so. And when their plans involve extraordinary new powers to surveil, coerce, and control the population, we might also hope for an account of how and when those powers will be rescinded, and what limiting principle will constrain their use.

Proponents of digital health passports have failed to clear even the most basic of these hurdles. Instead, they have offered conflicting, unrealistic, and sometimes incoherent explanations of what the new digital passport regime is meant to achieve. 

Are vaccine passports supposed to let us “finish the fight” against SARS-CoV-2, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised? Of course not. There is no “finishing the fight” against an endemic virus. 

Will the passports end transmission of the disease? No. The vaccines are not designed to stop transmission, and the virus can be spread by vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike. Is the point to ensure that hospitals and ICUs are not overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients? That is a legitimate goal, but it’s undermined when vaccine mandates result in the firing or suspensions of thousands of front-line healthcare workers, many of whom already have natural immunity. 

Maybe the passports are just a psychosomatic measure, meant to help vaccinated people feel safer and less anxious as they go about their lives. Or are they a blunt instrument to drive up vaccination rates in hopes of achieving herd immunity? If so, how high does the rate need to be? 80 percent? 90 percent? 100 percent? What will we do when the vaccine’s efficacy fades, or if new variants emerge with mutated spike proteins that escape vaccine-induced immunity?  No one seems to know. 

Lacking clear or realistic objectives, there is no way to evaluate the success of these new public health measures. And if success or failure cannot be measured, neither can they be declared.

This should worry us, because the elected leaders currently enacting vaccine passports have not committed to any limits—either practical or temporal—on these new powers.

We should not be overturning our most taken-for-granted social norms without first considering the risks and probable long-term consequences. Because once we go down this road, we may ruefully discover that there is no off-ramp.


If you believe that unvaccinated people are uniquely responsible for spreading SARS-CoV-2 and prolonging the pandemic, then you might not see the problem with mandates and digital health passports. You may even agree that unvaccinated peoples’ movements and liberties should be severely restricted, and their reticence and selfishness punished until they do their part and act responsibly. This attitude is reflected in President Joe Biden’s statement that “our patience is wearing thin” with the unvaccinated, or remarks by Prime Minister Trudeau to the effect that “those people” are endangering “our children.” 

But the assumption that unvaccinated people are a significant public health risk is at best overstated and reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of the virus and the purpose of the vaccines. 

Covid-19 vaccines are not designed to stop transmission of the disease or eradicate the virus. Unlike vaccines for diseases like smallpox or polio, they do not provide sterilizing immunity. They are “leaky,” and allow for frequent breakthrough infections. Fully vaccinated people infected with the delta variant have been found to carry just as much viral load as unvaccinated infected people, meaning they can transmit the disease just as easily. In the United Kingdom, which relied heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, the rate of Covid-19 infections is now higher in fully vaccinated people than in unvaccinated people in almost every age category. 

The vaccines also have a limited window of efficacy: after just five to six months, the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing infection declines below 50 percent. One Israeli study found that its effectiveness at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 cases dropped to just 16 percent after six months, while a new pre-print study from Sweden found that by seven months post-vaccination, the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines had no detectable effectiveness at preventing infection (thankfully, the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing hospitalizations and severe illnesses is much more durable).

Even if a country achieves 100 percent vaccination coverage, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to circulate, infect, and sicken people. Barring an actual miracle, it will become endemic to the human population, just like seasonal influenza and cold viruses. 

The function of the COVID-19 vaccines is not to eradicate the virus or prevent transmission but to attenuate the severity of symptoms and reduce the risk of serious illness or death. If we believe that vaccinations work—and that is the obvious assumption behind vaccine mandates—then vaccinated people have little reason to fear incidental exposure to the virus. To suggest otherwise is to imply that the vaccines are ineffective. 

Children have even less cause for worry, as they face a negligible risk of serious outcomes from the virus. An unvaccinated child is more likely to die of drowning or seasonal influenza than they are to die of COVID-19, and their risk of hospitalization is far lower than that of even fully vaccinated adults. Moreover, if the virus is endemic and ineradicable, then it is preferable that people contract it and begin developing a robust immune response in childhood when their risk of developing serious illness is lowest.  

And then there’s the matter of natural immunity. A sizeable portion of the population has already acquired immunity to COVID-19 after contracting and recovering from the disease. Researchers at Columbia University estimated that a third of Americans had acquired natural immunity by the end of 2020; many current estimates put the figure at 50-60 percent of the U.S. population. Natural immunity confers significantly stronger and broader protection against the virus and its variants than the vaccines alone. The largest study on natural immunity found that it is six to 13 times more effective at preventing (re)infection than the Pfizer vaccine.

A sizeable portion of the population has already acquired immunity to COVID-19 after contracting and recovering from the disease.

From either an ethical or an epidemiological perspective, it makes no sense to require people to get vaccinated against an illness for which they have already acquired superior immunity. This is especially true under the circumstance that many developing countries are still struggling to procure enough vaccines for high-risk populations that actually need them. 

Another justification for vaccine passports mirrors the early pandemic calls to “flatten the curve.” Compared to immunologically naïve people, recently vaccinated people do appear less likely to contract or to transmit COVID-19. Through mass vaccination and routine “booster” shots, it may therefore be possible to slow the spread of the disease and lower its overall prevalence in the population. The point is not to eradicate the virus—that can’t be achieved with current vaccines—but to delay its inevitable progression to an endemic illness and reduce the number of people getting sick at a given time. 

For jurisdictions concerned about COVID-related strain on hospital capacity, reducing the overall level of community transmission is an understandable goal. But the trajectory of viral outbreaks is unpredictable, and this one has proved stubbornly impervious to containment measures. A new study in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that there is no discernible correlation between an area’s vaccination rate and new COVID-19 cases; if anything, higher levels of vaccination were faintly correlated with an increase in new cases. 

More worryingly, a contingent of immunologists have warned of the possibility that mass vaccination strategies (as opposed to targeted protection for the most at-risk individuals) could actually make the disease more virulent. Viruses want to survive, and they evolve and mutate in ways that help them do so. Because existing vaccines train the immune system to recognize only one part of the virus—the spike protein—mutations to the spike protein can make the virus less detectable to the immune systems of vaccine-dependent persons. In a population with extensive vaccine coverage, selective evolutionary pressure will favour variants with mutations to the spike protein (the delta variant is one such example). Rather than contributing to herd immunity, mass vaccination might end up undermining it, leaving us with more transmissible variants, and less robust immune responses

This remains, for now, a speculative possibility. Like so much about this virus, we can’t evaluate these risks with a high degree of confidence, and that is all the more reason to proceed with caution and humility. But instead of admitting uncertainty, our elected leaders have done the opposite, staking their political legitimacy on the promise that vaccine passports and social segregation will end the pandemic. This risks creating a “path dependency” problem: with each step that a government takes along a particular policy path, the political cost of reversing course rises. 

There are plausible public health reasons for governments and health authorities to want to drive up vaccination rates, particularly among older individuals and those with co-morbidities who are at greatest risk of being hospitalized or dying of COVID-19. But there is no compelling epidemiological justification for segregating vaccinated from unvaccinated people. Whether or not a person holds a digital vaccine passport is not a reliable indicator of their immune status or the transmission risk they pose to other. Yet the failure to produce a QR code on demand is almost certainly a sign of something else: deviant non-conformity.  


Social comity and openness will suffer in a society filled with digital checkpoints, where neighbours are told to be suspicious of each other’s health status, families shun their unvaccinated members, and where every shop, café, and theatre is required to turn away customers who don’t carry the right digital papers. (As I write this, a woman at the café table next to mine is describing one of her friends as “filthy” for refusing vaccination; her companion agrees that the friendship must end).

To the extent that vaccine passports are plainly irrational — for example, by failing to recognize natural immunity — compliance with such a regime is demoralizing. And like so many emergency or war-times measures of times past, we can expect these new mechanisms of surveillance and control to remain with us in the post-pandemic era, repurposed for new ends.

If you support the use of digital passports, it’s probably because you agree with the criterion on which they discriminate. You are vaccinated, and you want other people to get vaccinated. You may even believe that non-compliant individuals deserve to be socially excluded. But what if the standards change? What if, one day, your QR code flags you as an undesirable, based on criteria that seem arbitrary, unjust, or entirely mysterious? We speak of totalitarianism as the image of the boot stomping on the human face forever. This is not a boot, but an algorithm in the cloud: emotionless, impervious to appeal, silently shaping the biomass.

Dan Delmar: The CAQ turns 10 — can the nationalist party withstand a federalist future?

Commentary

Looking back one decade to the founding of Quebec’s most transformational political party in a generation, it is safe to conclude the Coalition Avenir was not, as many fellow anglophone critics feared, meant to be a crypto-sovereignist movement.

We did however expect its leaders to behave similarly to the Parti Québécois with its quarrelsome ethnocentric nationalism. In that sense, the politically-ambiguous centre-right CAQ has already in its short lifespan usurped the PQ, becoming the vehicle for the province’s anti-federalist forces and pushing Canada toward a series of constitutional crises.

Launched in Montreal at a chic Lachine Canal loft in November 2011 as a diverse, reform-oriented coalition, the CAQ was vague on national unity since differing views within the party comprised of federalists and sovereignists were, and continue to be, irreconcilable.

Even before the party unveiled a policy it was already obvious which of the forces—federalist or nationalist—would be more influential. The somewhat amusing pronunciation of the party’s acronym in English was an early sign, media observers mused, that the CAQ’s more federalist-leaning English-speakers would be politically impotent.

While it never put a third sovereignty referendum on the table, the party eventually made a hard turn away from federalism and toward a brazen, décomplexé nationalism; the strategic compromise at the root of today’s brewing crises.

It took seven years and two third-place election losses for CAQ founder and now-Premier François Legault to drop all ambiguity about a third referendum. Ahead of the 2018 vote, the former PQ minister made the clear promise, even directly to me on Twitter after years of my persistent trolling on the issue since the party’s inception:

“A CAQ government would never hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty,” he promised.

The crypto-sovereignist charge had mostly been made in jest but, in the end, the joke would be on me as the premier doesn’t appear to need a referendum in order to separate Quebec from Canada, at least in a few key areas of interest for nationalists. All he needs are disengaged federalist opponents.

This Petit Compromis between Quebec and Canada became apparent in late 2018 following Legault’s win over former Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, weighed down by years of vague corruption smears and nationalist panic over “austerity” even as government spending continued to rise. An imploding PQ was even less popular than the besieged Couillard government, and Legault quite aptly chose the path of least resistance to becoming premier.

Legault can’t have his Canada and eat it, too, I wrote in my final weekly column for The Montreal Gazette then. While I applaud those who take a genuine interest in Quebec politics and the future of French in Canada, this Petit Compromis epoch means basic policy issues of interest to cosmopolitan democrats will barely advance until principled federalists return to government, or at least opposition in Quebec City and Ottawa.

Refusing to engage Legault on federalism and human rights—specifically on bills that attempt to rewrite Canada’s constitution to erase minority language rights in Quebec and ban civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols—is morally wrong and legally dubious but also a cultural timebomb for establishment parties when pollsters who bother to measure the phenomenon point to overwhelming support for federalism among young Quebecers (70 percent according to international polling firm IPSOS).

A clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

A generation of Canadian political leaders, including the prime minister, federal opposition leaders, and even the provincial Liberal opposition leader Dominque Anglade, have effectively given up on the Charter and principled federalism in Quebec when a clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

Federalism is not the hard sell much of Quebec’s nationalist-leaning commentariat makes it out to be, and that this point needs emphasizing is an indication of the level of strategic incompetence that is currently plaguing Canada’s political establishment.

Despite the miscalculations, a growing federalist constituency exists—the much-maligned pro-bilingualism, pro-Canada Couillard proved that with his decisive 2014 win—and it will be served one way or another.

In Montreal’s municipal elections last week, a hastily-organized diversity-focused party emerged as a third option amid debate of special status for Montreal to shield it from the CAQ’s ethnocentric policies. If the unpopular Anglade Liberals do not dramatically change course, they risk eroding their federalist base and perhaps even losing Montreal strongholds next year for the first time in a generation.

The chaos that Legault has fomented isn’t even limited to Quebec, with premiers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario mimicking the sort of constitutional subversion that had previously been contained to sovereignist movements—just without the moral legitimacy of actual, committed sovereignists.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe even flaunted his nationalism last week, proclaiming the province “needs to be a nation within a nation.”

The short-term outlook for federalists is bleak as sincere efforts are required to restore interest in the Canadian project.

Looking further ahead, even if the CAQ finishes off the sovereignist PQ next year and becomes Quebec’s clearinghouse for ethnocentric politics, the good news for federalists is that Legault’s victory will be short-lived as a demographic tidal wave of cosmopolitan Québécois millennials (including the “wokes” the premier fears) will come crashing down on nationalists of all stripes.

Despite being morally flexible on human rights issues related to freedoms of expression, Legault will be remembered as a transitional figure in Quebec politics, not unlike René Lévesque. And like Lévesque, some of his core values are incompatible with Canada’s in the long run. At an impasse, the non-sovereignist nationalist with a one-decade plan to change Quebec has settled into the role of caretaker for Lévesque’s movement, one its own leading philosophers describe as dying.

Many will view the CAQ’s Petit Compromis as a necessary transitory period following the Quiet Revolution, an uncomfortable middle ground en route toward a more multicultural francophone society. Time will tell how unfavourably the constitutional compromises will be seen.

By choosing to perpetuate the ethnocentric strain of Quebec nationalism past its natural shelf life, however, we know Legault and his ostensibly federalist enablers have placed themselves on the wrong side of a generational divide, and in the process made us all a little less Canadian, for a time.