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The Legault government recently announced the implementation of a vaccine passport. As of September 1, throughout Quebec, this passport will be required for access to places considered non-essential or high-traffic, such as restaurants, bars, or theaters. A week later, Legault announced that he would impose mandatory vaccination on health care workers who come into contact with patients.

As of August 20, in Quebec, 85.9 per cent of people aged 12 and over had received at least one dose of vaccine, and 77 per cent were fully vaccinated. Ninety per cent of employees in the healthcare sector had received their first dose. A majority of the population is vaccinated, and are eager to leave the pandemic behind. Some will probably see the CAQ’s measures as a good and simple way to get back to a “quasi-normal life” (to use Legault’s words). But is this really the case?  What attitude should the labour movement take to the government’s recent announcements?

What actions do we need? 

In the last few days, we have seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec. The surge of the Delta variant, which accounts for approximately one third of new infections, is of particular concern. The fourth wave is here already, and the vast majority of those infected are unvaccinated people. With exhausted nurses barely holding together a decaying healthcare system for the past year and a half, it is understandable that there is a certain amount of anger towards the minority of unvaccinated people.

For many, the issue of the vaccine passport is rather simple: “Why should we risk another lockdown because of a few selfish people?” If the CAQ’s measures push the hesitant to be vaccinated, without presenting any particular inconvenience for those who are already vaccinated, then there seems to be no reason to oppose it.

But one thing is striking: the vaccine passport and mandatory vaccination are being introduced in the absence of almost any other new preventive measures against the virus and the fourth wave that is beginning. Yet, as Dr. André Veillette, an immunologist at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal, pointed out, “We must not rely solely on the vaccine or the vaccine passport; there are also masks, ventilation and rapid tests that are still not being done.”

Where the vaccine passport is implemented, it only applies to customers, not employees. So, besides wearing masks, what measures are going to be put in place to ensure worker safety? The same question actually applies to all workplaces, where most outbreaks occur. No new measures have been announced by the CAQ government in this regard. As incredible as it may seem, mass free testing is not yet a reality. Except in the case of contact with a COVID-19 patient or in the presence of symptoms, one must pay hundreds of dollars to be tested! This is certainly no incentive for workers, especially the poorest, to get tested.

With the start of the school year approaching, there are also fears in the education community. Many parents are rightly concerned about their children’s health. With a few days left before the return to school, there are no guidelines for schools, notably for what is to be done in case of an outbreak. The announcement of vaccine passports for high-risk extracurricular activities in high school will not change this, as masks will not be mandatory in elementary and high school classrooms.

While the CAQ has dragged its feet, and outright lied, about air quality in schools, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge recently announced that plans to install air quality monitors in all classrooms would not be completed until the end of the year. A year and a half of pandemic was not enough for the CAQ to take such obvious measures.

Let’s also remember that children are still not vaccinated. This exposes them to serious side effects of the virus such as “long COVID”. We are heading towards a new school year where schools will once again be a breeding ground for the virus. The first time was a tragedy, the second time is a farce.

“Individual responsibility”, yet again

In reality, the announcement of the vaccine passport is a way for the CAQ to avoid taking  responsibility. It is left to the businesses concerned to verify the health passports of their clients. This is another way of putting the blame on individuals: recalcitrant vaccine users and negligent restaurant owners will now be blamed for new cases of infection—just as parties and young people were blamed when the curfew was in effect. 

It is also important to note that the vaccine passport does not take into account certain special cases. For example, access will be restricted to certain places that are essential for homeless people, such as restaurants or libraries. Few people experiencing homelessness have a cell phone on which to use the passport app, or can keep an official paper document.

The similarity between the vaccine passport and the curfew that was imposed by the CAQ from January to May is striking. While the virus ran rampant in schools and factories, the CAQ blamed parties and small gatherings for the spread, and imposed fines against people violating the curfew, forgetting about the homeless. The same story is repeating itself.

If there is one part of the population that welcomes the CAQ vaccine passport with open arms, it is the business community. “… There is a consensus that we can no longer afford to impose more general containment measures,” said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the vaccine passport is clearly stated here: it is being used to replace other measures, such as lockdowns, that would require temporary closures, or compensation to workers who are sent home. In short, measures that would once again cut into the profits of the bosses.

No trust in the CAQ or the state

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CAQ and capitalist governments in general have responded with incoherent policies and late half-measures that have set the stage for successive waves of infection. The current improvisation of vaccine passports and mandates is an example of this. This explains the lack of trust in the government. 

In the case of the vaccine mandate, we do not know yet if the mandate will be widened to sectors of the workforce other than healthcare. But the CAQ has already declared its intention to propose the suspension without pay of employees who refuse vaccination. We cannot trust the CAQ with such measures. Let’s not forget that this is the government that believed that homeless people shouldn’t be spared from the curfew. Giving the government the power to repress workers opens the door to abuse from this same government.

There is evidence that a significant barrier to vaccination doesn’t come from the workers, it comes from the bosses. For example, the Journal de Montréal reported that “examples of employers refusing absences for vaccination are multiplying, including in the health and education networks. Some workers, even though they are among the most exposed, have to postpone or even cancel their appointments.”

Not all workers are able to take a day off to get vaccinated, since there is no requirement for an employer to release employees to do so. In addition, if there are significant side effects from the vaccine, workers need to plan to use several more sick days, which some cannot afford. But we can be sure that bosses won’t want to pull out their checkbooks to promote vaccination for their employees. And the CAQ, a party of bosses, doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to introduce paid sick leave for vaccination either, or to force its friends, the bosses, to do so.

For workers’ control of health measures!

What should be done?

Vaccination is essential to protect the population against the virus, and we believe the entire population should be vaccinated. The majority of the working class is vaccinated, and correctly sees vaccines as key to fighting the pandemic. Many of these workers do not want to work with the minority of their unvaccinated colleagues because they correctly feel that it is unsafe. The task of making sure everybody is vaccinated is a task for the working class and its organizations. 

But the measures of the CAQ won’t be sufficient. The labour movement must demand paid sick days for vaccinations, as well as paid sick leave in case of side effects in the following days. In addition to this, all necessary measures must also be put in place in workplaces and schools, including the use of free rapid tests for mass testing and tracing, and the closure of any workplace where an outbreak occurs, with full pay for all workers.

What we need above all to overcome the pandemic is workers’ control. As long as the economy, and the power that comes with it, is in the hands of a minority which only cares about profit, we cannot trust that adequate measures will be taken in time to fight the pandemic. We must demand the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry, and that the entire health sector be run under democratic workers’ control. The private sector must be taken out of health care entirely. With a coherent plan for vaccination and testing, and a massive education campaign on the science behind vaccines, none of which is subject to the profit motive, there would be no reason to mistrust the vaccine or to be skeptical. Any mandates or repercussions for vaccine refusal should be democratically decided by the workers themselves completely independent of the boss or the state. The workers will be much more eager to get vaccinated if the vaccination campaign is run by the working class and the unions rather than the state and the capitalist government.

Only with bold socialist measures can this pandemic be quickly eradicated.