The federal government should be taking a more assertive position in the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines.
When the first batch of vaccines arrived in Canada, Ottawa released recommendations on who should receive the first doses — but the ultimate discretion was left to individual provinces.
Recommendations, according to the federal government, were made to ensure the allocation of a limited supply of the vaccine to certain groups earlier than others.
“These recommendations aim to achieve Canada’s pandemic response goal: ‘To minimize serious illness and overall deaths while minimizing societal disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.’”
The lengthy document goes on to list key populations, starting with those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Listed under this section are people with advanced age and/or high-risk conditions.
This makes sense — and it’s tough to argue with Ottawa recommending this particular population should be first in line for a vaccine. Data suggests hospitalization, ICU admissions and death rates from COVID-19 increase with age or with people with certain underlying conditions.
Following this population, the federal government recommends vaccines should be given to people likely to transmit COVID-19 to people who are ill or at risk of death, or to workers essential to responding to the pandemic.
Again, it is difficult to argue against health care workers or caregivers in long-term care facilities being among the very first to receive vaccinations.
After these two fairly obvious populations receiving the vaccination, the federal guidelines become a bit murky.
People “contributing to the maintenance of other essential services for the functioning of society” should get the vaccine next, according to the feds, but they leave it to the provinces to define who falls into this population.
Ottawa suggests “those whose living or working conditions put them at elevated risk of infection and where infection could have disproportionate consequences,” should then receive the vaccine.
This recommendation includes people working in agricultural or meat production/packing facilities, thousands of whom are temporary foreign workers.
There isn’t anything specifically wrong with any of these recommendations.
Most Canadians seem to agree high risk individuals, like the elderly, and the people caring for them, like doctors, should be first to receive the vaccine.
Early roll outs of the vaccine from the provinces have been focused mainly on these populations.
But what happens next remains unclear — and this is where the federal government needs to be more assertive.
Some Conservative politicians, alongside their allies in provincial governments, are suggesting Canadians should receive doses of the vaccine before foreign workers for no other apparent reason beyond “we are Canadians.”
This nativist thinking is not helpful, and will further perpetuate concerns Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is rooted in racism. Many of temporary foreign workers have been infected with COVID-19, and some have died from it.
Poor socioeconomic living and working conditions for these workers mean they are more vulnerable to infection. They also often face increased barriers to accessing health care.
Provinces, such as Alberta, are currently still deciding when these workers will receive the limited doses of vaccines. Early indications suggest they won’t receive vaccines until at least April.
The conditions of seasonal agricultural workers and temporary foreign workers should dictate they receive the vaccine sooner than most, and the federal government should step in to ensure this happens.
The federal government has a moral obligation to ensure provinces are protecting these workers — but it also just makes sense.
Already some countries, like Mexico, have suspended sending workers to Canada because of health concerns.
Continued failures to protect foreign workers will harm Canada’s international reputation, potentially making it harder to access foreign labour.