Michelle Rempel Garner: Federal vaccine messaging has become a disaster

The federal government should have a clear binary on vaccines: approved and safe, or not.

By: Michelle Rempel Garner

Yesterday Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization once again stoked vaccine hesitancy by stating that there are two tiers of vaccines in Canada.

As they did last week with the AstraZeneca vaccine, NACI delivered advice on the dosing age for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and included a caveat: Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, both based on mRNA technology, are “preferred” against the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson adenovirus-based vaccines that have been associated with rare instances of blood clotting.

“mRNA vaccines are the preferred vaccines,” NACI told Canadians, suggesting that if Canadians had the ability to wait for an mRNA vaccine (meaning you do not live or work in a hot zone and have the ability to work from home) that holding off should be considered. This is a far cry from the “take the first vaccine offered to you” mantra the federal Liberals have been promoting for weeks.

The day got worse when Patty Hajdu, the federal Minister of Health, had the opportunity in Question Period to clarify if Canadians should wait for an mRNA vaccine or take an adenovirus-based one if it came available first. Instead, she suggested that Canadians should ... talk to their doctor.

Much has already been written about the dumpster fire of communications that the Health Minister has presided over. All of that is valid, especially given this is far from the first instance of dangerously unclear advice given from the federal government on vaccine safety.

Now, what urgently needs to be discussed is the systemic elitism that allowed this thought to make it to an official federal government press conference and that underpins Canada’s response to COVID-19 large.

It doesn’t take much to see divide between the haves and have nots in the “preferred vaccine” narrative. According to the government, you should wait for the good stuff if you are an affluent Canadian in a suburban area with a stable, work-from-home job, don’t have kids in school, and can afford to have everything contactlessly delivered to your doorstep. You should take the “less desirable” vaccine if you are working class and live in a crowded hot zone, work in crowded or public-facing environments, live in a multigenerational house, and care for children attending in-person school. This is decision making with a lens of assumed privilege.


For the Health Minister to then suggest that Canadians should contact their doctors to get advice on whether or not to wait for a “preferred vaccine” further underscored how detached from reality federal officials are. Millions of Canadians do not have family doctors to ask for advice, and even if they did, Canada’s frontline physicians would probably tell the Health Minister that they are a little bit busy with a pandemic right now.

Given that much of our country has been in lockdown for over a year now, the federal government should have a clear binary on vaccines: approved and safe, or not. The only way we are getting out of this situation is if the federal government can convince as many people as possible to take vaccines. To do this we need clear, concise communications and trust in public health advice.

The “preferred vaccines” narrative that the Liberals have allowed achieves none of this. If the government has reason to doubt the safety of the vaccine, then they should pull it. If not, the advice should be clear and consistent — get vaccinated, now, with any approved vaccine.

Suggesting a tiered vaccine system when we are short on supply and in a race against time to immunize ahead of rapidly spreading variants and a hospital system collapse will cost lives. This is because more lockdown is a luxury most cannot afford. The assumption that spread is happening solely from illegal social gatherings is a paternalistic fallacy. Compliance with lockdown restrictions is waning out of need, desperation, and sheer compliance fatigue. Canadians need vaccines, now.

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Canada’s “preferred vaccine” narrative is made even more laughable given the doses of their so called “less desirable” AstraZeneca vaccine that have been administered in Canada to date have been received through charity. They have been loaned to us from the United States, and charitably given to us by India and by the COVAX facility, whose main purpose is to deliver doses of vaccines to developing nations.

Justin Trudeau is supposed to deliver a speech to a concert hosted by Selena Gomez on the need for global vaccine equality. Given all that inequality has been the hallmark of Canada’s domestic response to COVID-19, perhaps Trudeau first should clarify his government’s domestic response before preaching to others. “Preferred vaccines,” indeed.

Michelle Rempel Garner is a Conservative MP who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill. She is the vice chair of the parliamentary health committee and shadow critic for health.

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