Home > News > Feature/Profile > A history of the persecution of the unvaccinated in Covid-era Canada
Feature/ProfileGuest ContributionsOpinion/Column

A history of the persecution of the unvaccinated in Covid-era Canada

The physical force used to remove Ottawa protesters was nothing compared to the psychological operations used to coerce Canadians to shun vaccine decliners. Photo: Twitter

Canadians had their rights trampled the day police broke up the Truckers’ Convoy in Ottawa.

by

Koen Swinkels

How an overwhelming majority of Canadians came to support unprecedented policies targeting people who decline the Covid vaccines.

[latest update: November 4]

Table of Contents

Introduction

On January 18 of this year a Maru opinion poll showed that two thirds of Canadians supported making Covid vaccinations mandatory. An even higher percentage wanted the unvaccinated banned from “entering public spaces and premises such as restaurants, cinemas, libraries, liquor and cannabis stores, and various retail outlets.” And more than a quarter wanted jail time for the unvaccinated.

Why did Canadians want these measures imposed on their unvaccinated fellow citizens?

“Canadians view the unvaccinated as responsible for overwhelming the health care system (48%), people who are holding Canadians back from having a new normal life (40%), endangering society (36%)“

On that same day, in Ontario fully vaccinated people were 20% more likely to be infected with Covid than unvaccinated people were. 75% of non-ICU Covid hospitalizations were vaccinated, as were the majority of ICU Covid hospitalizations. In the two weeks leading up to the poll the rate of Covid deaths was frequently higher among the boosted than among the unvaccinated.

Once adjusted for age and comorbidities official government data did show that unvaccinated people were still considerably more likely to be hospitalized with Covid or dying from Covid than vaccinated people were, but public opinion about the scope of the threat that unvaccinated people posed to society seemed to be at odds with the facts on the ground.

The types of exclusion policies that targeted the unvaccinated, and the widespread support for these policies were unprecedented in modern Canadian history. No other group had been so openly demonized or outright banned from much of society as the unvaccinated now were. The closest analogue of what was happening occurred during World War II when Japanese-Canadians were not just excluded from public life but actually preemptively detained in internment camps. The government even sold their homes and businesses.

Japanese-Canadians load into the back of trucks for relocation to camps in the interior of British Columbia — source

Things hadn’t quite gotten that far yet now but the exclusion policies already in place, the widespread support for the criminalization of the unvaccinated, and the minority support for jailing the unvaccinated were troubling signs.

How did this happen? And how far could things go from here?

In the two years prior, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic had caused tremendous fear and anxiety. The measures taken in response to the pandemic had in turn caused considerable hardship and generated increasing anger and frustration.

From very early on, vaccines were presented as the only way out of the pandemic and the lockdown. Take for example these remarks from Prime Minister Trudeau from early April 2020:

Remarkably, just eight months after these remarks the new vaccines arrived.

The vaccines had been developed in record time, for a novel virus, by companies (BioNTech and Moderna) that had never before brought a product to market, and they used a new technology (mRNA) that had never before been authorized outside of clinical trials.

But based on the trial results of these BionTech/Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines, the authorities considered them safe and effective. That reassurance, in combination with the promise that vaccines were the (only) way out of the pandemic and out of the lockdowns, meant that the arrival of the vaccines was met with great excitement and expectations.

The trial data had indeed shown impressive results of up to 95% efficacy against symptomatic infection. While acknowledging uncertainty, there was now cautious optimism that once 60–70% of the population had been vaccinated, society would turn a corner.

The vaccination program began in mid-December 2020 with the groups most vulnerable to the virus, as well as the healthcare workers and LTC staff who care for them. While supply problems had slowed down the initial rollout, by the spring of 2021 supply was moving and eligibility had expanded from the vulnerable and elderly to ever younger age groups.

By midsummer every adult had had an opportunity to get vaccinated and eligibility had expanded to teenagers. Close to 70% of all Canadians had now had at least one dose.

data source: Our World in Data

But the virus hadn’t gone away. In fact, there would be more cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the summer of 2021 than in the summer of 2020, when the vaccination rate was 0%.

data source: Our World in Data
data source: Our World in Data

And the restrictions hadn’t gone away either, as a comparison of Canada’s Summer of 2020 vs. Summer of 2021 scores on the Government Stringency Index showed:

data source: Our World in Data

Partly as the result of new and more transmissible variants, the expected percentage of Canadians who needed to be vaccinated to achieve some kind of herd immunity had been increasing, to 80% or even 90%.

Unease was growing, as were worries about possible new waves in the fall and winter. But who or what was to blame? The vaccines? Or perhaps the minority of people that hadn’t taken them?

While breakthrough cases had gone from rare to pretty common, and while even fully vaccinated people would sometimes end up in the hospital or ICU for Covid, data from the public health authorities showed it was still mostly unvaccinated people who were filling up the hospitals, not just relative to their share of the population but in absolute terms as well.

This fact, combined with the fact that so many people and institutions had invested so much — practically, emotionally, financially — in the idea of vaccines as the safe and effective tickets out of the pandemic, made it unsurprising that it was not the vaccines that were being blamed. Instead, increasingly it was the unvaccinated who were seen as the reason that society was still stuck.

Who are the unvaccinated?

The unvaccinated were typically divided into two groups. The first were the ‘vaccine hesitant’. The hesitant might simply lack easy access to the vaccines, or hadn’t yet been able to find the time to make an appointment, or still had some concerns or fears. Some might be distrustful of the government given their, or their identity group’s, historical experiences with the government.

For this group the solution was seen in raising awareness about the vaccines, listening to their concerns, answering their questions, and making it easier for them to access the vaccines.

This in turn centered on facilitating access to vaccines and on pro-vaccine messaging. So there were pop-up clinics, mobile clinics in neighborhoods, phone calls to the unvaccinated, and vaccine clinic representatives going door to door to persuade people and set up appointments and so on.

There were phone lines that people with questions and concerns about the vaccines could call. In addition, there were lotteries, ice-cream for teenagers, and many other creative rewards for getting vaccinated.

For the second group, the so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’, there was less optimism. These people were seen as rabidly opposed to the vaccine, as hopelessly and stubbornly misinformed conspiracy theorists, and anti-social to boot. They were thought to be hateful, even racist and misogynistic. Such people likely could not be persuaded.

So from early on in the vaccination campaign efforts had focused on the ‘vaccine hesitant’, using the ‘carrot’ approach, listening to their concerns and making it easier and more attractive to get vaccinated.

The vaccine decliners

But this division of the unvaccinated into these two groups of ‘vaccine hesitant’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’ entirely ignored a third group, the ‘vaccine decliners’.

Because the vaccines had been relentlessly promoted as safe and effective, and as the ticket out of the pandemic, the implication was that no reasonable and well-informed person could reasonably decline the vaccine. Unless they had one of the very few and very rare medical conditions that were considered to make it too dangerous to be vaccinated.

But there are numerous groups in society for whom the cost-benefit analysis of getting vaccinated may simply not favor getting vaccinated.

This group includes for example healthy youngish males (and some young females as well) for whom the risk of hospitalization due to post-vaccine myocarditis alone may be greater than the risk of post-Covid myocarditis or greater than the risk of being hospitalized for Covid in general.

This group also includes a large percentage of the people in society who have already had Covid and hence likely already have a significant degree of immunity. Getting vaccinated may marginally add to their protection but maybe not enough to outweigh the risk of adverse events of the vaccine, even more so because the adverse events risk tends to be higher in people with recent prior infection.

And the group arguably also includes women who wish to have children in the future. While these women might have agreed that at that point there was no compelling evidence that the vaccines negatively impact fertility, and while they might have acknowledged that Covid poses a risk to pregnancy as well, they might have decided that because:

  • these vaccines are the first time mRNA vaccine technology have ever been used outside of clinical trials
  • there are no long-term safety and effectiveness data
  • in the past year alone there have been numerous things that we thought we knew about the vaccines that turned out to be quite different than expected

they simply didn’t want to take the risk.

So while unlike in the case of the clearly demonstrated myocarditis risk there was at the time no strong evidence to scientifically substantiate the idea that the mRNA vaccines pose a risk to pregnancy, the arguments these women had to nevertheless decline the vaccines were not unreasonable. Their choice to decline the vaccines was not the result of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ or ‘anti-vax’ sentiments. They were making a conscious and reasonable decision to not take a Covid vaccine at that time given their specific situation.

Some people in the group of vaccine decliners were also skeptical of the rosy views of the vaccines presented by the government and media. They followed the literature closely and were aware of reports of serious adverse events such as vaccine induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia and myocarditis well before these entered mainstream discussion. They saw authorities and media initially ignore or downplay these problems, only to later be forced to acknowledge their extent and seriousness, and even to recommend that certain groups no longer be given the specific vaccines that were causing these problems.

They also looked at the staggeringly high rate of adverse events reported for the adenovirus and mRNA vaccines compared to all other widely used vaccines in the past few decades. While agreeing that there are a lot of problems with adverse events reporting and that not all reports of adverse events will have actually been caused by the vaccines, they were also aware of research that shows that historically adverse events may be underreported by up to an order of magnitude, or sometimes even close to orders of magnitude.

all deaths reported to Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System by year
source

Many of them also kept up to date with the latest vaccine effectiveness data and they noticed waning effectiveness early on. Moreover, some looked at the high number of excess deaths that have occurred in many countries for much of 2021, numbers that cannot be explained by Covid alone. And they may have found it striking and suspicious that there seemed to be so little interest among governments, media and public health in investigating what could explain this high number of excess deaths.

So people in this group of skeptics believed there were good reasons to be distrustful of the effectiveness and/or safety profiles of these vaccines as they were presented in public discourse about the vaccines.

These are just some of the demographics who in principle could make a reasonable and well-informed decision to remain unvaccinated against Covid. And together they comprise a significant percentage of the population. The group of healthy, non-elderly, previously infected people alone can be a very substantial minority. Add to that the youngish healthy males (< 30) and younger healthy females for whom myocarditis poses a risk, and the total might be 30- 50% of the population.

The large majority of people did of course get vaccinated, either because they freely chose to do so — because they thought it was the best decision for their own health and/or because they wanted to protect others — or because they felt pressured by family, friends, work, or by government restrictions to do so.

But some declined the vaccines, and continued to decline them. Most of these decliners support vaccination in general. Most have taken many vaccines in their lives, and most parents among them have had their children vaccinated with all the typical childhood vaccines. Many may even believe that these mRNA vaccines are still a good option for the most vulnerable groups. So this group is neither ‘vaccine hesitant’ nor ‘anti-vax’. Instead, they made a conscious and evidence-based decision, for themselves, about these particular vaccines.

Ignoring the vaccine decliners

Yet in public discourse this group of conscious vaccine decliners was almost entirely ignored.

For example, to this author’s knowledge neither the Toronto Star nor the Globe and Mail — Canada’s two largest newspapers —ever published any opinion article by somebody explaining their reasons for declining the Covid vaccines. This omission is all the more remarkable given the dozens of articles that those same newspapers did publish about the unvaccinated (and what to do with them).

The lack of recognition of the category of vaccine decliners likely also had another cause. Doctors played an important role in the public discussion about the vaccination program. But many doctors were not free to speak their minds. Colleges of physicians had threatened investigations and sanctions against any doctors who would publicly question aspects of the vaccination campaign. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), for example, warned its members not to ‘make comments or provide advice that encourages the public to act contrary to public health orders and recommendations.’

These public health recommendations included that anybody who is eligible to be vaccinated — including children, once they’re eligible — and who does not have a clear medical exemption, should get vaccinated. The CPSO recognized only a very narrow set of medical conditions — including severe allergies to a component of the vaccine, or pericarditis or myocarditis after the first dose — as valid grounds for an exemption to vaccination with the mRNA vaccines.

So Ontarian doctors could not publicly question whether for example it was wise for healthy 18 year-old males with prior infection to get vaccinated, without thereby risking an investigation by their college. Nor could they speak freely if their patients asked them privately about the risk and benefits of getting vaccinated given that patient’s own personal health situation.

Even people who had experienced severe adverse reactions to the first dose — including life-threatening ones — found it difficult or even impossible to get medical exemptions for their second dose. Their doctors might agree they should not get a second dose but informed their patients that their hands were tied by their college of physicians. Some expressed concerns they would risk losing their license if they tried to obtain an exemption for their patient, or if they spoke out publicly about the adverse events they had seen in their work.

This Western Standard program featured one doctor and three patients with such harrowing experiences (relevant clips in the video below, full video here):

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan started an investigation into a doctor who had written an open letter in which he expressed his concerns that parents and children were not given sufficient information about the risks and benefits of the mRNA vaccines, especially concerning the well-documented risk of myocarditis. Here you can listen to the chilling meeting in which that doctor was fired by the University of Saskatchewan (starts at about 2h17m30s of the podcast).

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario even told its members that rather than write a medical exemption letter for patients who would experience severe emotional distress if coerced into being vaccinated, they should work with those patients or even consider referring them to a psychologist or prescribing them medication so as to “manage anxieties related to the vaccine and not enable avoidance behavior.”

The lack of freedom for doctors to voice dissenting opinions, express concerns, ask questions or help patients to freely decline the vaccine that they do not want contributed to the general impression that all doctors agree that everybody should get vaccinated, and that with very rare exceptions there simply are no good reasons not to get vaccinated.

So the basic idea in public discussion about vaccination remained that the vaccines are safe and effective, and that therefore people who decline the vaccine do so only because they:

  • lack the proper information
  • irrationally reject that information
  • experience anxieties that may need to be treated with therapy or medication so as not to enable vaccine avoidance behavior
  • encountered practical barriers that meant they had not yet had an opportunity to get vaccinated

From persuasion to coercion

Throughout the vaccination campaign open scientific discussion about the risks and benefits of the vaccine — about who might and who might not benefit from taking the vaccine — had been avoided or even suppressed. What had taken place instead was essentially one long promotional campaign calling on everybody who was eligible to get vaccinated.

There was ubiquitous, relentless advertising: On TV, online, on the radio, in the newspaper, at the bus stop, on the subway and so on. Everywhere people went or looked they’d see or hear ‘Get vaccinated’ ads or politicians, public health officials, doctors, social media influencers imploring people to get vaccinated.

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FCG3yL7eP7jI%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DCG3yL7eP7jI&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FCG3yL7eP7jI%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

Once everybody had had a chance to get vaccinated, efforts began to focus on getting the ‘vaccine hesitant’ vaccinated.

But while vaccination rates had increased further as a result of these efforts, it was not enough to achieve the high vaccination rates that were now deemed necessary to achieve herd immunity.

As the vaccine hesitant had now been listened to, talked to, and been provided with all the necessary information to address and take away their concerns, and as access to the vaccine had now been made as easy and convenient as possible, patience was running out with those who had still not gotten their shot.

Getting the ‘vaccine hesitant’ vaccinated was important not just for their sake, but for society’s sake as well. It had by now become normalized even for doctors to recommend that people get vaccinated not so much to benefit themselves but to benefit others. It wasn’t exactly that people were told that getting vaccinated may not be a rational decision for their own health but that this is outweighed by the benefits it brings to the people around them and to society as a whole — after all, vaccines were still presented as safe and effective for everybody — but there was now a strong emphasis on ‘doing your part’ and ‘protecting the people around you’.

The appeal that was made to people’s altruism, or their sense of duty, of course also implied that those who continued to decline to get vaccinated became the object of moral condemnation. These people were not helping others, were not doing their part.

They were selfish, anti-social, and a danger to society.

This also meant that perhaps harsher measures could be justified to get the unvaccinated to take their shots. The switch that was taking place from gentle persuasion and facilitation to outright coercion was perhaps best exemplified by the Globe and Mail editorial board. On June 17 they were still advocating for the carrot method:

But just a day later they also brought out the stick:

Opinion polls

Back in January, Prime Minister Trudeau had expressed his opposition to domestic vaccine passports because they would have a “divisive impact” on society. But his official position appeared to have softened in March. While still expressing concerns about equity, fairness and discrimination that would have to be taken into account, he did not express any principled objection. These remarks came a day after the Kantar Group, commissioned by Trudeau’s election staff, had conducted psychographic polling among Canadians concerning their thoughts and feelings about issues related to Covid-19 and the government response. The polling showed that the majority of Canadians trusted the government’s response and were very angry with people who declined to wear masks or get vaccinated.

Trudeau was well aware that exploiting fear and anger, and sowing division, could help win elections. Years earlier he had explained how:

And he would go on to do exactly that throughout the summer.

As Liberal MP Joël Lightbound later revealed, the Trudeau government was intentionally using vaccination as a wedge issue for the election that Trudeau would call for September 20:

In his campaign Trudeau explicitly made federal vaccine mandates a key issue, announcing that the “selfish” unvaccinated would no longer be allowed to travel on planes, trains and ships, or work for the federal government, airlines or railways because they posed a threat to the vaccinated people who had done their part.

And to their children.

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2F4XSiKegbSEs%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D4XSiKegbSEs&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2F4XSiKegbSEs%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

It is never quite clear how accurate opinion polls are as a barometer of public sentiment. Nor is it always clear to what extent the role of such polls is to accurately reflect existing beliefs, or to influence such beliefs. Telling the public how popular or unpopular certain beliefs are in society also conveys a message about how socially acceptable these beliefs are, which in turn may make such beliefs more or less attractive.

This also points to a tension that exists between these two roles: It is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which pollsters could make ideas more popular by exaggerating the number of people in society who hold such beliefs, or make them less popular by falsely claiming only a small minority agrees with them.

But for what it’s worth, the Kantar Group’s polling results were similar to those of other opinion polls, conducted by other polling agencies. These polls too demonstrated widespread antipathy among Canadians for the unvaccinated and widespread support for banning them from parts of society.

Take for example this Angus Reid poll from July:

Or this Nanos poll conducted in early August and commissioned by the Globe and Mail:

Remarkably, while 78% of polled adult Canadians voiced support for banning unvaccinated people from public gatherings, in the period the poll was conducted only the 60+ age groups had a fully vaccinated rate of higher than 78%. and the 1+ dose rate for under 40s was just over 74%.

Another Nanos poll from that same week, this one commissioned by CTV News, showed 74% support for mandatory vaccination:

In an Angus Reid poll from mid-August 83% of vaccinated people said they don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who chose not to be vaccinated and then get Covid.

No doubt the opinions reflected in this poll were in part the result of the messaging coming from media and government that there were only two groups of people who had not yet gotten vaccinated: The vaccine hesitant (who by now had had ample opportunity to get educated and vaccinated) and the anti-vaxxers (who were just too irrational and/or selfish to get vaccinated). If there can be no good reasons for people to decline the vaccines, then anybody declining the vaccine is simply making a bad decision.

But this framework excludes the kinds of examples mentioned earlier, such as a healthy 18 year old male athlete who makes a rational, evidence-based decision not to get vaccinated because for him the risk of myocarditis is greater than the risk of serious Covid disease. Or a healthy 30 year old woman with immunity through prior infection. Or an otherwise healthy 40 year old male who had a serious adverse event after his first dose that however does not qualify him for a medical exemption according to the very narrow criteria stipulated by Canadian authorities.

All these people have good reasons to decline the vaccine. But each of them could still end up being one of the statistically unlucky ones to get infected and develop serious Covid disease. It would be natural to feel sympathy for them in that case, but if the public doesn’t realize that there can be good reasons to decline the vaccines then they won’t take such cases into account when answering the question whether they would feel empathy if an unvaccinated person gets sick with Covid.

And even if there had not been good reasons to decline the vaccines, it was still striking that 83% of vaccinated people had little sympathy for unvaccinated people if they were to get sick — and hence would be suffering and scared — just because they made a bad choice.

It’s hard to imagine a similar number of people not feeling any sympathy if somebody who has an irrational fear of flying gets into a severe accident as she is driving to her destination, or if somebody who is obese gets hospitalized with diabetes and needs to have his leg amputated. Yes, he made bad choices that caused his obesity, but we don’t know his life, how he ended up struggling with his weight, while we do know that he is suffering now.

It’s the unwillingness or inability to imagine people’s lives — or the coldness involved in disregarding their worries, thoughts and feelings — that is so troubling about people’s lack of empathy or sympathy.

This widespread antipathy for the unvaccinated also gave rise to a popular new genre of Covid reporting, that of the repentant sinner.

A steady stream of articles or TV items appeared in the media in which unvaccinated people who ended up hospitalized with Covid expressed regret for not getting vaccinated.

Doctors would describe their experiences with such people:

In contrast with the repentant sinners there were the unrepentant ones:

In late August the Toronto Star published an article (text) about the results of the public’s lack of empathy for unvaccinated people:

The newspaper subsequently apologized for the cover design. Because it was not clear to all readers that the quotes on the cover reflected the views of members of the public and not necessarily of the Toronto Star itself, The Star said it ended up “stoking the very divisions it sought to write about.”

The cover design clearly left the impression that such intensely negative feelings towards people who decline the Covid vaccines were widespread in Canadian society. So where did The Star obtain these specific quotes and why did it choose to amplify them by featuring them prominently on the front page?

Twitter user tracked down the original quotes and found they had had almost no traction:

Which raised the question to what extent The Star was trying to accurately reflect the mood in the country or was actively trying to influence it:

Moreover, contrary to The Star’s public editor’s comment, it was not just the cover design that may have stoked divisions. The article itself may have also contributed.

The article included many statements from members of the public as well as from healthcare professionals who were out of sympathy or empathy for unvaccinated people who are ill with Covid. While the experts quoted in the article provided some tips on how people can work on developing empathy if they choose to do so, there was no condemnation — implicit or explicit — of this lack of empathy, not even when it comes to healthcare professionals who are tasked with helping the people they may now not feel any empathy for. The experts‘ main message in the article came in the form of explanations for why it was understandable that people would feel this way. This in turn may have made the lack of empathy easier for the reader to empathize with.

An example (not featured in the article) of a healthcare professional who had seemingly lost sympathy and empathy for unvaccinated people who fall ill or even die from Covid was this New Brunswick cardiologist who in July had tweeted:

Sadly, four months later that same cardiologist unexpectedly died in his sleep. In a potential but unconfirmed tragic irony, his death came just two weeks after receiving his booster dose. The reactions to this news showed that it was not just vaccinated people who were struggling with empathy for those who had made a different choice.

In its descriptions of unvaccinated people, the Toronto Star article stuck to the now familiar but inaccurate categorization of them as either vaccine hesitant or irrationally anti-vax.

Given this framework it was not surprising that the article never raised the question to what extent media and politicians had been partly responsible for fueling the public’s antipathy for the unvaccinated. Specifically, it didn’t discuss what role exaggerated claims about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and mischaracterizations of the beliefs and motives of people who declined the vaccines may have played. Instead, the article left the impression that this antipathy had developed autonomously among the public, as an understandable response to pandemic fatigue and the alleged irrationality of the unvaccinated.

Because the article

  • perpetuated the idea that there are no rational grounds for declining the Covid vaccines
  • prominently pointed out how widespread and intense the antipathy against the unvaccinated is among Canadians — even among respectable healthcare professionals
  • explained why such sentiments are understandable
  • failed to point out the role the media and government had played in fueling these sentiments

the net effect of this seemingly neutral article may well have been to make this antipathy for the unvaccinated seem even more socially acceptable. Again, this was the headline:

In a Radioland podcast episode titled “Angry Idiots, Explained” journalist Jesse Brown and restaurateur and author Jen Agg discussed the Toronto Star article. In the weeks before, people had been protesting in front of Agg’s restaurants against the idea of excluding unvaccinated people from restaurants (and other types of public spaces), something Agg had publicly called for. In the podcast Brown and Agg made some critical remarks about the Toronto Star article. They thought the frontpage would ferment division and anger what they call the “anti-vaxxers.” They agreed that they themselves do not wish death upon the “anti-vaxxers.” But, Brown quipped: “I have two kids under 12 so just as a statement of fact, it would be better for me if they died, like, I would prefer… That’s not mean! That’s just true. They’re spreading a disease that my kids are vulnerable to, so I don’t wish them ill will. I’m just saying the fact that it would be better if they were dead. For me. And my kids. It would be better.” And Agg agreed: “It would be better for me and my restaurants too.”

While said jokingly, the underlying precise was that the unvaccinated were the unique source— or at the very least the primary source — of viral transmission. If true, that would mean there is a factual basis for treating the unvaccinated differently from the vaccinated, and for being fearful of and angry with those who are eligible to get vaccinated but decline to.

The idea of the unvaccinated as the unique or primary transmission threat, and the strong negative emotions provoked by that idea were of course the very basis of Justin Trudeau’s election campaign at the time.

A few days after Trudeau had won the election another opinion poll, this one conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies, showed how prevalent this idea and these sentiments had become in Canadian society: An overwhelming 85% of vaccinated people had outright negative views of the unvaccinated.

Incidentally, this poll revealed a remarkable fact: While the media habitually portray the unvaccinated as the angry, hateful and intolerant ones, the unvaccinated were far less likely to have negative views of the vaccinated than vice versa. Only 28% of the unvaccinated held negative views of the vaccinated. This was despite the fact that it was the vaccinated who were now responsible for the unvaccinated being banned from large parts of society, being fired from their jobs and so on. But seemingly, at most 28% of the unvaccinated held that against the vaccinated.

The overwhelmingly negative view vaccinated Canadians now had of the unvaccinated and the strong support for vaccine passports and mandates among Canadians did not emerge spontaneously. For months Canadians had been told by government, media and doctors that the vaccines were very effective against infection and hence transmission. The implication of course is that it is primarily the unvaccinated who still posed a threat.

But although there were numerous exceptions, until early summer this implication of the unvaccinated as the primary threat had not yet given rise to a campaign by media and government to directly attack and blame the unvaccinated. As mentioned before, there remained hope that many of them— specifically, the vaccine hesitant — could still be persuaded to get vaccinated. Once that hope had started waning, the rhetoric and policies targeting the unvaccinated changed as well. The Kantar group’s polling showed that as early as March there already was considerable antipathy among the public for people who did not follow public health directives or recommendations. And the unvaccinated would be a prime example of such people. That antipathy then began to be fueled and weaponized by politicians and commentators during the summer months, which only grew it further. The opinion poll numbers and Toronto Star article discussed in this section showed that this campaign appeared to be effective. But how did it accomplish this? What did the campaign look like?

Weaponizing public opinion

In the summer months Trudeau was far from the only one pointing to the anger among the public to justify finally doing something about the unvaccinated. By then commentators in the media — the vast majority of whom, incidentally, received extra funding from the Trudeau government during the pandemic— had put away the carrots and brought out the stick.

This culminated in a one-month period, starting in late July, with a barrage of commentaries— sometimes in vaguely threatening language —about how the angry majority was demanding vaccine passports and mandates to ban the selfish fringe minority of unvaccinated people from much of society. Some examples:

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason, July 29:

Toronto Star business columnist David Olive, July 30:

Globe and Mail columnist, John Ibbitson, August 4:

Toronto Sun columnist and former chief of staff to a federal Liberal minister of health, Warren Kinsella, August 7:

Globe and Mail columnist André Picard, August 9:

Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel, August 11:

Toronto Star editorial board, August 13:

André Picard again, August 23:

Gary Mason again, August 26:

Excluding the unvaccinated

The opinion polls and the intense media campaign for vaccine mandates and passports had an impact. Any opposition there once may have been to these ideas within provincial and federal governments was now gone.

Federal, provincial and local governments began to mandate vaccination for their employees, and often for the employees of businesses that contract with the government as well. There were mandates for LTC home staff and hospitals. And many other employers in a wide variety of sectors of the economy did the same, amid public appeals to do so by doctors and others:

In academia, many universities required not just professors to be fully vaccinated but students as well, in order to live on campus, to attend in-person classes or sometimes even to be allowed to do online classes.

So the unvaccinated were now de facto being purged from many key institutions in society.

To make matters worse for the unvaccinated, in October Canada’s Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough suggested that people who get fired as a result of their decision to decline the Covid vaccines would not be entitled to their Employment Insurance Benefits:

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FKqkF68HgCm0%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DKqkF68HgCm0&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FKqkF68HgCm0%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

Besides workplaces, the unvaccinated were now also being banned from many public spaces. The Trudeau government kept its campaign promise and banned unvaccinated people from trains, planes and ships, making it impossible for unvaccinated Canadians to leave the country (except by renting a private jet for which an exemption applied) or visit friends or family or attend weddings or funerals on the other side of the country, except by driving there.

Provincial governments banned unvaccinated people from bars, theaters, restaurants, gyms, churches, indoor sports and many other indoor venues.

And many organizations went beyond what was required of them by their government. Canada’s national broadcaster banned the unvaccinated from its premises. In a B.C. Ronald McDonald House unvaccinated parents and children were threatened with eviction. In Alberta unvaccinated people were no longer allowed to serve on juries. A Quebec judge revoked a father’s right to visit his child because he was not vaccinated. And while in Quebec it was the government that had made churches close their doors to the unvaccinated, in other provinces many churches voluntarily did the same thing.

Unvaccinated people waiting for a life-saving organ transplant were removed from waiting lists, dooming many of them to disease and death if they continued to decline the Covid vaccine. The stated justification for this decision was that scarce resources such as organs should be given to those with the highest likelihood of survival. Unvaccinated people were said to have an increased infection risk — especially in a hospital setting — following transplantation. But the fact that the policy did not have exemptions for people with immunity through prior infection raised eyebrows.

As did the fact that two doses of the vaccine sufficed to be allowed to stay on the waiting list even though it was by now well known that two doses were barely effective in transplant recipients because of the immunosuppressant medication they have to take, while alternative treatment such as monoclonal antibodies had proven much more successful in such patients.

Moreover, unvaccinated people were no longer even allowed to receive (parts of) organs from living donors such as relatives. Even though clearly these organs were not scarce in the sense that they would have gone to other people. A father donating (part of) an organ to a son is unlikely to do the same thing for a random other person.

In Ontario an unvaccinated member of parliament who had tested positive for Covid on November 19 was ejected from the Chamber upon her return on December 7, despite a negative test, and banned from the building until mid-February, despite now obviously being one of the MPPs least likely to be infected and spread the virus. Nobody in the Chamber protested as she was made to leave:

In Quebec unvaccinated people were no longer allowed to buy non-essential goods in stores, which meant that in big-box stores they could for example still pick up medication at the pharmacy department. But to make sure they did not buy any non-pharmaceutical products while they were in the store, they had to be physically accompanied by store employees. This is what that looked like:

The most common argument in favor of this unprecedented physical segregation was the one Trudeau campaigned on: Protecting the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated were seen as virus-carriers who put everybody else at risk.

What was never explained, however, was why the vaccinated needed protection from the unvaccinated if the vaccines were as effective as they were said to be.

Yet many fully vaccinated people, not just the immunocompromised among them, seemed genuinely scared of being around unvaccinated people. The earlier mentioned Angus Reid poll also found that about half of vaccinated people polled planned on avoiding unvaccinated people, despite themselves being vaccinated and hence presumably protected:

The emotions at play were strong. Here a columnist expressed horror at the idea of unvaccinated parents being allowed to watch their children play sports:

Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur implored people to get over the sense of shame they might feel if they asked friends, family members or others for proof of vaccination. He told them to no longer interact with such epidemiologically untrustworthy people:

A Toronto Star contributor went even further:

Such society-wide physical segregation of one group, the visceral negative emotions towards that group, the calls on people to stop mixing with unvaccinated family and friends, and just the sheer cruelty of many of the measures and rhetoric, had not been seen since some very dark periods in history. Yet large majorities of the public expressed such sentiments, and endorsed such measures as obviously the right and moral thing to do.

These harsh restrictions and the social and psychological pressure exerted on them undoubtedly made some unvaccinated people give in and take the vaccine that they really preferred not to take. But the effect was not large: The rate of people with at least one dose had gone up by just six percentage points in the period from late August to early December.

Source: Canada.ca

Of course, it is difficult to increase vaccination rates when those rates are already so high. But despite such high vaccination rates cases, hospitalizations and deaths had been higher throughout much of September and October than they had been a year earlier, when the vaccination rate was 0%.

Source: Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

Crackdown on exemptions

Despite the apparent failure of the vaccination campaign to get the virus under control, vaccination continued to be regarded as the only way out. What needed to happen was simply still more vaccination. Boosting the most vulnerable and expanding eligibility to children ages 5–11 were two elements of this. Further increasing the pressure on the unvaccinated another.

But politicians, public health officials and media also seemed to think that if the mass vaccination campaign and the vaccine passport system were not having as much effect as hoped, maybe this wasn’t because the vaccines were not nearly as effective as once thought but because people were finding ways around the system.

For example, Ontario Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore claimed — without any evidence — that any outbreaks that occur in settings for which proof of vaccination is required could only be the result of unvaccinated people fraudulently gaining entry into those spaces:

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2F7TWj_Q1TzIo%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D7TWj_Q1TzIo&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2F7TWj_Q1TzIo%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

So a crackdown began on unvaccinated people trying to circumvent their physical exclusion from society, and on the people trying to help them. The Toronto Star played a leading role in this:

And it was not just fraud with vaccine certificates that the unvaccinated were being accused of. There was also going to be a crackdown on what were deemed invalid exemptions. When he announced the federal travel ban for unvaccinated people Justin Trudeau had warned that there would only be “a few, extremely narrow exceptions,” and that “for the vast, vast majority of people the rules are very simple: To travel, you’ve got to be vaccinated.”

As the document from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario cited above showed, doctors were given extremely limited room to argue that their patients should be exempted from vaccination with the experimental vaccine with the unprecedentedly high rate of adverse events.

Here too, Ontario medical officer of health Kieran Moore saw to it that as few people as possible could avoid being subject to the vaccination requirement. He stated that “no more than five in 100,000 Ontarians have specific and rare medical conditions that medically qualify them for vaccination exemptions.” The real rate of medical exemptions that were granted was even lower than that. In Ontario, a province of 14.7 million people, only 290 exemptions would be granted, or only 1 for every 50,689 people.

There was no room for exemptions on the basis of creed either. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s position was that “mandating and requiring proof of vaccination to protect people at work or when receiving services is generally permissible under the Human Rights Code (Code)” and that personal belief does not constitute a creed and so no exemption should be granted on that basis.

Both the government and the public were skeptical of people claiming medical or faith-based exemptions and of the few doctors and religious leaders who were willing to provide support for such exemptions.

And the thought of people whose exemptions might not meet the criteria set by the government still having access to the places unvaccinated people were banned from, was hard to stomach for some:

The Toronto Star editorial board, moreover, seemed to want to extend the coercive approach — the stick — to make sure there were no exemptions for children anymore either.

In a vaguely threatening editorial imploring parents to have their 5–11 year-old children vaccinated, the board argued that at some point the Covid vaccines should become mandatory in order to attend school:

Nice education you’ve got there. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Escalation

In November for the first time cases, deaths and hospitalizations were lower than they had been a year earlier. To what extent this was the result of the vaccine passports and mandates, or the mass vaccination program in general, was unclear. What was clear, however, was that just as increased cases, deaths and hospitalizations in September and October had not put a dent in government, media and the public’s commitment to vaccination or in their demonization of the unvaccinated, neither would the decreasing numbers in November and early December.

Source: Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

By now a new threat had appeared. The Omicron variant had emerged and spread rapidly in South Africa. It was clear from early on that the vaccines were much less effective against this variant. And when Omicron started to spread in Canada cases quickly exploded to previously unimaginable heights. Soon hospitalizations and deaths followed and surpassed the peaks from a year earlier when vaccination rates had still been in the low single digits.

None of these developments, however, lessened the insistence on vaccination as the way out. If anything, the reverse was true:

In the holiday season people were explicitly told to not invite unvaccinated family or friends. Echoing what his counterpart at the Toronto Star, Bruce Arthur, had said before Thanksgiving, Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard implored readers not to see unvaccinated family and friends at Christmas, and to not feel bad about it:

Some provincial and local public health officials outright banned the unvaccinated from Christmas gatherings:

In Ontario nursing home residents were not allowed to have unvaccinated children or grandchildren over for Christmas:

And Ontario Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore urged an end to “the mixing of unvaccinated and vaccinated.”

The few commentators urging for restraint in society’s treatment of the unvaccinated were not always as generous and inclusive as one might think:

source

Most of the few other commentators urging for restraint were like the two examples above: They objected to some of the rhetoric and proposed policies as going too far but they did so in a rather limited way: They pointed to the vaccine hesitant and described some unvaccinated people as victims of misinformation. This might make it easier to empathize with such people. But the commentators would not acknowledge the group of vaccine decliners. That meant they too implicitly denied that people could make a reasonable decision not to get vaccinated, unless they have a clear medical reason. Moreover, while they objected to some of the toughest policies that were now being proposed, they accepted the ones already in place and sometimes even pushed for additional ones.

But there were exceptions. Bioethicist Kerry Bowman, repeatedly expressed concerns about both the rhetoric and the moral and factual basis for the current policies. One example is this interview from early November:

Why are you skeptical that vaccine certificates are ethical?

Pretty close to the top of the list is the curtailment of freedom of movement. In a mature democratic society, people have freedom of movement. And equity: Is it fair for people with vulnerabilities, people with challenges, whether they be physical or cognitive disabilities or due to racial injustices? Does it create potential problems in terms of equity? And I would think it actually does in some cases.

One of the greatest concerns I have is that the kind of solidarity that we had earlier in the pandemic, the notion that we’re all in this together — which was never fully true, but at least it was encouraging to hear — that’s really fallen away. I often ask this fundamental question: Does a measure or policy bring people together or divide people? And I think this clearly divides people. Now, I’m pro-vaccine, but I work with some unvaccinated people who have very senior positions, both within the hospital system and the university system. To characterize the unvaccinated as extreme right-wing radicals or selfish, thoughtless people is really unfair. We are absolutely demonizing the unvaccinated. Our politicians and many people in leadership roles are very comfortable with being incredibly aggressively negative towards unvaccinated people and creating an us-and-them mentality within society. This is dangerous stuff. We are human beings, and we are primates, and this feeds into the weaker aspects of human nature.

There’s almost a presupposition that the division of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people is a complete firewall. And it’s not. We do know that vaccinated people are far less likely to become critically ill, and there’s some growing indication they have less chance for transmission. But it does not mean that if there are vaccinated people on one side and unvaccinated people on the other, that there’s absolutely no virus on the vaccinated side. And we kind of are creating policies as if it does.

Another exception was this op-ed in the National Post by four physicians who explicitly discuss:

  • the negative effects of vaccine passports on society and public health, especially for people in already disadvantaged communities
  • the apparent lack of any attempts to measure the efficacy of vaccine passports
  • the possible slippery slope
  • the lack of focus on those locations that appear to be playing key roles in the spread of the virus
  • the disregard for the role of natural immunity and hence for some of the good reasons people may have to decline Covid vaccination
  • the role of coercion in undermining bodily autonomy and informed consent
  • the loss of trust in public health that may result

But despite these few exceptions, and despite the now undeniable lack of effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing infection and transmission, Canadian society still largely regarded unvaccinated people as a uniquely dangerous threat to everybody else and vaccine passports as the proper moral and practical tool to address this problem.

In late December and the first half of January, when there was widespread fear of hospitals getting overloaded in the Omicron wave, the demonization of the unvaccinated reached a fever pitch.

The leader of the country, prime minister Justin Trudeau, started off the new year by reminding the unvaccinated that the vaccinated were angry with them:

source

Commentators, editorial boards, politicians, and even medical associations, doctors and professors of bioethics began to call for ever more punitive measures, such as taxing the unvaccinated, denying them healthcare, excluding them from more and more parts of society, or even outright criminalizing and jailing them:

source

Even little children were affected by and used in this demonization campaign:

How effective are these vaccines really?

The escalation of the policies and rhetoric against the unvaccinated in early 2022 was troubling in its own right, but it was especially peculiar because of the parallel development that had been taking place and that was undermining the very rationale for the policies and rhetoric: The very high number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths despite very high vaccination rates showed that the vaccines were obviously much less effective at containing the virus than originally thought.

Part of the messaging promoting the vaccines throughout the campaign came in the form of data purporting to show how effective the vaccines are. This started with the data from the clinical trials that showed up to 95% efficacy against symptomatic infection. Once the vaccines had been authorized for emergency use and the vaccination campaign had started, regular reports appeared in academic articles, government publications and media about how effective these vaccines were against infection, hospitalization and transmission in the real world. These data played a crucial role in selling the vaccines to the public. But they are far from unproblematic.

At this point we have huge amounts of data from all around the world that are relevant to determining how effective the vaccines are. But remarkably, we don’t have any really good data.

Having really good data would mean knowing how many Covid infections, hospitalizations, deaths and transmissions occur in a group of vaccinated people and, in similar circumstances, in a similar group of unvaccinated people. The groups have to be similar in terms of age, sex, comorbidities, health-related behavior and so on. The circumstances have to be similar in terms of virus incidence, living situations, government restrictions, healthcare facilities and so on.

Such really good data would allow us to relatively straightforwardly perform reliable and meaningful vaccine effectiveness calculations.

The only data that we do have are flawed to varying degrees. This is because establishing what the causal effects of pharmaceutical interventions are is fraught with difficulties. In the processes of producing, collecting, handling, interpreting, and presenting the data necessary to determine how effective the vaccines are, there are countless steps that introduce potential sources of bias, inaccuracy, or even downright deception.

The best way to avoid most of these problems is through well designed, properly conducted, double blind randomized controlled trials (RCTs). There are many good reasons to be cautious if those data do not directly come from such trials. This is especially the case in an atmosphere in which there is tremendous pressure and incentive to make the vaccines look as good as possible

And sadly, we simply don’t have RCTs that provide high quality data to tell us how effective these vaccines actually are against:

  • transmission
  • symptomatic infection in the medium and long-term
  • severe Covid disease
  • Covid mortality
  • all-cause mortality

The absence of medium and long-term RCTs and the absence or lack of use of high quality active and passive adverse events surveillance systems also mean that we do not have good evidence about how safe these vaccines are, especially in the long-term. Suppose for example that over time the number of heart attacks or strokes is meaningfully higher in vaccinated people than in an otherwise similar group of unvaccinated people. This would be much easier to observe with medium and long term RCT data than with real world observational data.

The only RCT data we do have — from the RCTs conducted by the pharmaceutical companies that developed the vaccines — provide us with relatively short-term data on how effective the vaccines are at preventing symptomatic infection. The trials were not designed to demonstrate effectiveness against severe disease or death. The number of trial participants — especially elderly people and people with severe comorbidities who are most vulnerable to severe disease and death — was simply much too small.

Moreover, because the control groups were unblinded a few months into the trials when the participants were given the opportunity to take what now appeared to be a highly effective vaccine, there could also not be any meaningful medium and long-term safety and effectiveness data. Lastly, there have been credible accusations that for example the Pfizer trial was not actually properly conducted, nor reliably double-blinded even before the official unblinding took place.

Most of the other evidence we have about vaccine effectiveness comes from observational studies, cases/hospitalizations/deaths numbers released by public health institutions, experimental data showing various types of immune responses, and from the governments and media reporting on such data. All of these can be highly problematic, although of course some non-RCT data are higher quality than other data, and some institutions and media are more capable or honest in how they interpret and represent those data than others.

It would take us too far off course here to to discuss the many ways in which distortions can be introduced in the processes in which data are generated, collected, handled and presented, and how well designed, properly conducted double blind RCTs avoid most of these problems. But you can read this article in which I do exactly that.

For our purposes here we should just keep in mind that the data presented to us by researchers, public health institutions, politicians and media about how effective the vaccines are, are flawed to varying degrees. And it is impossible to say just how far off they are from the numbers we would have had if proper RCTs had been conducted. As I briefly point out in the article, it is not even clear to what extent the apparent waning of vaccine effectiveness reflects genuinely declining effectiveness over time or is the indirect result of a growing recognition of ineffectiveness that was already there.

In the remainder of this section I will just list a few examples of politicians and media misrepresenting the data and misleading the public. Take this example from Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot:

In her daily updates Elliot would casually give one number for the combination of not fully vaccinated people and people with an unknown vaccination status that are currently in ICU, and contrast it with the number of fully vaccinated people in ICU. And the difference is stark: 124:3. But there is no particular reason why people with an unknown vaccination status should be grouped together with not fully vaccinated people rather than with vaccinated people or in a category by themselves. The effect is that on a superficial reading it makes the number of not fully vaccinated people in ICU seem much larger than it is. But when we look at the underlying data from Public Health Ontario we see that only 49 of those 124 people were confirmed unvaccinated, and 127–49–5–3=70 had an unknown vaccination status. So here’s what an alternative but equally accurate presentation of the data would look like:

Instead of three fully vaccinated people in ICU contrasted with 124 not fully vaccinated people or people with unknown vaccination status, in the alternative formulation 78 vaccinated people or people with an unknown vaccination status are contrasted with a mere 49 unvaccinated people.

Or take this technique that was popular among both media and public health institutions in the first six months of the vaccination program:

The headline is what makes the impression but when you read on you see that they are counting cases for the entire period from the start of the vaccination campaign. For the large majority of that period the number of unvaccinated people was much higher than the number of vaccinated people, so even if hypothetically the vaccines were entirely ineffective then for that reason alone the majority of cases in that total period would be in unvaccinated people.

As the year went on and a higher percentage of people had been vaccinated for a higher percentage of the total time this method unsurprisingly fell out of favor as it was now biased against vaccinated rather than unvaccinated people.

Here is a last example, featuring less blatant ways in which vaccine effectiveness data are inaccurately presented in the media. This CBC report reaches spectacular conclusions about vaccine effectiveness, but while its methodology avoids some of the pitfalls mentioned in this article it fails to avoid many others, which I will leave as an exercise for the readers to identify:

Since the start of the vaccination campaign we have seen countless examples of how researchers, government and media intentionally or unintentionally misrepresented vaccine effectiveness data to varying degrees. But without proper RCTs our actual knowledge of vaccine effectiveness is limited. So we should keep in mind that all the data we have seen and are seeing now should be treated with considerable caution. Even more so when the people presenting the data have a strong belief in the effectiveness of the vaccines such that these assumptions can unintentionally or intentionally introduce biases in the data.

The solution lies in well designed, properly conducted and double blind randomized controlled trials. These are expensive. But governments have spent enormous amounts of money on their pandemic response in general and the vaccination program in particular. There is no possible justification for not spending a tiny fraction of that money on the only method that generates reliable and accurate data to inform this response. Canada, for example, could have initiated their own large trial at the start of the vaccination campaign. It could have run for at least six full months and most of the participants in the control group would still have hardly been disadvantaged compared to their peers outside of the trial.

Crumbling narrative

Since no better data are available we have to make do with the imperfect data that we do have. And worldwide, despite any biases, pressures and incentives that may have been at play, the data were showing quickly decreasing vaccine effectiveness against infection.

The first indications of this came in early summer from Israel whose vaccination program was a few months ahead of Canada’s. Similar data from other parts of the world soon followed. And in Canada too by the end of the year it had become difficult to deny that the vaccines no longer provided much protection against infection and transmission.

data source: Public Health Ontario

Infection rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated people converged in December, and since then infection rates have repeatedly been higher among vaccinated people.

Keep in mind, though, that because the unvaccinated were excluded from large parts of society this may in part have been the result of unvaccinated people simply having fewer opportunities to get infected. It is also possible that the rate of prior infection was higher in unvaccinated people which would mean they are relatively more protected against infection.

But even so, in the face of extremely high infection rates among vaccinated people, and similar rates of infection in the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, it was clear that one crucial argument in favor of segregating the unvaccinated from the rest of society had collapsed: If the vaccinated can get infected and can transmit the virus at similar rates as the unvaccinated, why should the unvaccinated be banned?

Surprisingly, this obvious point was seldom raised in public discussions about vaccine passports. And neither the federal nor the provincial governments had eased restrictions for the unvaccinated in response to this development.

Another argument in favor of banning the unvaccinated from much of society had been gaining in popularity, however. Official data showed that the unvaccinated were hospitalized at much higher rates than the vaccinated, so to protect the unvaccinated against themselves they need to be kept out of public places where they could get infected.

And by protecting the unvaccinated against themselves, society would also be protecting everybody else. If the unvaccinated were to get infected and hospitalized in large numbers, they would use up hospital beds and other healthcare resources that would then no longer be available for other patients.

This was, however, a strange argument from the start. While it was undoubtedly true that the ‘hospitalizations by vaccination status’ data released by public health authorities showed much higher hospitalization rates for unvaccinated people, it was also still true that it was primarily unvaccinated people in very specific high-risk groups who ended in hospital: The elderly, the very obese, and those with severe comorbidities.

A healthy unvaccinated 25 year-old’s risk of ending up in ICU for Covid is very low, and much lower still if they’ve already had Covid. So how could it be justified to also ban such people who are at low risk of hospitalization for Covid? If the goal was to prevent hospitalizations and coercion is deemed acceptable then it would make much more sense to only ban the high-risk unvaccinated people — as well as high-risk vaccinated people — from public spaces to prevent them from getting infected and hospitalized. All the low-risk groups, vaccinated or unvaccinated, could then be left free to live without these restrictions.

Yet it was all the unvaccinated and only the unvaccinated who were banned from much of society. And it was all and only the unvaccinated who were scapegoated and demonized.

Even apart from the moral dimension, this simply didn’t make any practical sense.

What’s more, vaccine protection against severe disease and hence hospitalization and death had also begun to wane considerably. Here too Israeli data had provided the first indications that were later confirmed in many other countries.

In the last few months of the year Canadian data began to reflect this waning protection as well. Most striking of all were the high numbers of hospitalization and deaths in the population. Numbers that did not seem very different from — or were even worse than — previous waves when vaccination rates were much lower, as low as 0%.

Source: Canada.ca
Source: Canada.ca

Given how small the number of unvaccinated people was in Canada, such peaks in absolute numbers simply would not have been possible if the vaccine was not losing effectiveness against severe disease as well. And they appeared to be, as exemplified by these data from Ontario:

source: Public Health Ontario
source: Public Health Ontario

Note that the last chart has absolute numbers instead of rates per 100K, but given that the number of unvaccinated people changed very little in the last two months of the year, these changing absolute numbers still clearly signal that while the unvaccinated were still hospitalized at considerably higher rates than their share of the population — especially in ICU — this gap was narrowing.

Waning vaccine effectiveness had started when Delta was still dominant, but it had accelerated now that the more vaccine immunity evading Omicron variant had taken over. Because Omicron was so much more transmissible, though, and the disease it caused milder than with previous variants, the percentage of hospitalizations and deaths in which the infection may have been incidental was likely higher than in previous waves. The Ontario government would go on to change its reporting of Covid hospitalizations in January to distinguish between hospitalizations with and hospitalizations due to Covid.

In any case, the argument that all unvaccinated people needed to be banned from much of society because they are at a uniquely high risk of hospitalization had now lost much of its power as well: High-risk vaccinated people were much more likely to be hospitalized than the many low-risk unvaccinated people, especially now that vaccine effectiveness against severe disease was clearly waning, so even besides the moral issues involved there was simply no good reason to exclude low-risk unvaccinated people from society.

But despite the lack of sense in the argument it clearly had a strong effect on the public, as demonstrated in the January 2022 Maru poll:

Note also how low on the list the idea of unvaccinated people as the primary spreaders of the virus — Trudeau’s original justification for the vaccine passports and mandates—now was.

There was another argument for the measures against the unvaccinated, though. By simply making their lives as difficult as possible they will eventually give up, submit and get the vaccine.

This argument, however, runs into the same problem just discussed: What ultimately is the point of forcing low-risk unvaccinated people to get vaccinated if doing so won’t meaningfully reduce infections and transmission, or hospitalizations and deaths?

Moreover, the argument can be extended in disturbing ways: If the reason that people who decline Covid vaccination are being banned from much of public life is not that their participation in public life would pose a disproportionate direct threat to others, but simply that banning them from public life is an acceptable tool to pressure them into getting vaccinated, then banning people from public life would become a general method of coercion — like fines and imprisonment— that governments may use to get people to comply with a wide variety of behaviors.

Worse, to be fined or imprisoned you first need to be found to have broken the law. But the precedent set by vaccine passports is that you could be banned from much of society even if you do not violate any laws, but simply as a way to pressure you to do something that the government would like you to do but that it does not technically mandate you to do.

And in this case, it was not even clear why the government felt so strongly about pressuring the few remaining unvaccinated people into getting vaccinated, what the expected practical effect on hospitalizations was that it thought justified its use of this coercive tool. Few people seemed to even ask by how much hospitalizations could be reduced if the remaining unvaccinated were to get vaccinated. Would hospitalizations be cut by 75%? 50%? 25% 5%? And how big would the reduction have to be to justify this far-reaching measure?

Vaccination rates in the most vulnerable groups were already extremely high, according to Public Health Ontario data:

To be sure, these official vaccination rates in the higher age groups are clearly inaccurate. The ‘at least one dose’ category has more people in it than the actual population. And even the correction of the vaccination rate to 99.99% is highly implausible as it would mean there are only 66 unvaccinated people 80+ in Ontario. Similarly, a 99.55% vaccination rate implied only 113 unvaccinated 70–79 year-olds.

These anomalies are due to the difficulty of accurately estimating population sizes. And if vaccination rates in a population are very high, then relatively small differences in the estimates of the total population will result in relatively large differences in estimates of the unvaccinated population. Suppose for example in a population of one million people 99.9% of people are vaccinated. That means there are only 1,000 unvaccinated people. If there are 5 deaths in the unvaccinated group it implies a 5 in 1,000 death rate. But suppose the total population estimate is off by just 0.25% and there are actually 1,002,500 people in the population. Then the number of unvaccinated people is actually 3,500 instead of 1,000, which in turn implies a death rate of 0.0014 instead of 0.005. So case / hospitalization / death rates data for unvaccinated people in a highly vaccinated population are highly unreliable if the number of unvaccinated people in that population is estimated by subtracting the number of vaccinated people from an estimate of the total population.

In any case, because of the very low rate of unvaccinated people in the high-risk population of the elderly, there are good reasons to think the effect of vaccinating all remaining unvaccinated people would be small. A back-of-the-envelope calculation by Twitter user Stephen McIntyre suggests that in Ontario this would indeed be so:

100–150 fewer non-ICU hospitalizations and not even 50 fewer ICU hospitalizations on any given day in peak season.

In a province of 14.7 million people.

This hardly seems enough to justify the unprecedented exclusion and demonization of the unvaccinated.

Of course this is only a back of the envelope calculation by a smart person on Twitter, but it is striking that the official government institutions have not done — or at least have not published — their own calculations, and that the media and public haven’t asked them to.

Nor did they do a similar kind of study: In medicine it is common to calculate how many people you need to treat with a drug or how many people you need to vaccinate in order to prevent for example one hospitalization or death. It is important to know this ‘number needed to treat’ because you can use it to compare the expected benefit (the prevented hospitalization or death) to the expected cost (e.g. the number of people expected to be hospitalized due to adverse events from the treatment, or the totality of more minor adverse events resulting from the treatment). In public discussions there was, however, a striking absence of Number Needed to Vaccinate calculations.

Moreover, excluding the unvaccinated was also an intervention that had costs. After all, the unvaccinated were inconvenienced by it, often severely so. So it would make sense to calculate the expected benefits and compare them to the expected costs. To do that you would need to know how many people you would have to exclude from any number of public spaces in order to prevent one transmission event originating from an unvaccinated person. Using that number in combination with hospitalization and death rates you can then calculate the number needed to exclude to prevent one Covid hospitalization or death.

Canadian authorities never did such a seemingly very obvious and basic investigation. Or if they did, they never published the results. In December a preprint was published by researchers who did try to do this. And the results did not look good for the idea of excluding the unvaccinated as an effective policy tool:

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FwAI4GSzTYTU%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwAI4GSzTYTU&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FwAI4GSzTYTU%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

Conclusions Vaccines are beneficial, but the high [Number Needed to Exclude] suggests that excluding unvaccinated people has negligible benefits for reducing transmissions in many jurisdictions across the globe. This is because unvaccinated people are likely not at significant risk — in absolute terms — of transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to others in most types of settings since current baseline transmission risks are negligible. Consideration of the harms of exclusion is urgently needed, including staffing shortages from losing unvaccinated healthcare workers, unemployment/unemployability, financial hardship for unvaccinated people, and the creation of a class of citizens who are not allowed to fully participate in many areas of society.

For example, the study estimates that 3,801 Ontarians would need to be excluded from work/study places to prevent one transmission. Using an infection mortality rate of 0.2% this would mean nearly two million people would have to be excluded to prevent one Covid death.

As the authors note, even this very high number is likely a significant underestimate:

First, the two conservative assumptions of the model [1. the factor that corrects for the higher transmissibility of Delta, 2. no prior immunity in the unvaccinated population and the vaccinated contacts of unvaccinated index cases] mean that the calculated NNEs likely represent the minimum number of unvaccinated people needed to exclude to prevent one SARS-CoV-2 transmission event in each jurisdiction and type of setting. The true NNEs are likely much higher, especially in jurisdictions with higher levels of vaccine/natural immunity.

On the other hand, in an environment of very high incidence of a very transmissible virus — think Omicron in Canada in December 2021 — the number needed to exclude to prevent one transmission is likely considerably smaller.

In general, because of the complex nature of the problem, and the number and nature of the assumptions needed for a model like this, the results should be treated with considerable caution. But what is so striking is the apparent lack of interest among Canadian politicians and public health authorities in even attempting to do such an analysis, however imperfectly. This was one more indication that the primary purpose of exclusion policies was unlikely to be the prevention of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

So while there was widespread support for the exclusion policies among the public, media and policy-makers, and ample angry rhetoric against the unvaccinated, the scientific basis for these policies and rhetoric was sorely lacking. And hardly anybody cared.

This March 2022 Toronto Star editorial de facto acknowledged the disconnect there now was between vaccine passports and mandates on the one hand, and the expected health benefits on the other:

What is clearly missing is any direct reference to health benefits or to containing the pandemic, which again was the primary motivation expressed by Justin Trudeau during the election campaign.

It also raises the question what would happen if the Trudeau government ever does have to defend these bans in court: Would it use the now clearly scientifically untenable arguments that the unvaccinated play a outsized role in spreading the virus? Or would it resort to the arguments used by the Toronto Star that so clearly have nothing to do with any expected health or pandemic control benefits? And would the court accept such arguments as sufficient basis for the policies?

The key arguments for excluding the unvaccinated from much of society were never strong to begin with and only became weaker over time as the vaccines were not delivering on their promise. But no matter their intellectual weakness, the arguments seemed to be very effective at solidifying public support for the exclusion policies.

And that may be because of how they resonated emotionally rather than made sense intellectually. Behavioral scientists around the world had been researching what types of messaging best uses or exploits people’s emotional responses, self-interest, and sense of duty and community to increase people’s willingness to get vaccinated. Take this experiment carried out by behavioral scientists at Yale University in July 2020 where 11 different types of messaging were being tested on the public. Note the messages that explicitly appeal to emotions such as guilt, embarrassment and anger, and that work by shaming people who decline the vaccines and painting them in negative terms.

The researchers concluded that:

On average, a simple informational intervention is effective, but it is even more effective to add language framing vaccine uptake as protecting others and as a cooperative action. Not only does emphasizing that vaccination is a prosocial action increase uptake, but it also increases people’s willingness to pressure others to do so, both by direct persuasion and negative judgment of non-vaccinators. The latter social pressure effects may be enhanced by highlighting how embarrassing it would be to infect someone else after failing to vaccinate.

So while neutral informational messaging will be relatively effective at persuading people to get vaccinated, adding a moral framework increases the effect: Messaging that frames getting vaccinated as prosocial and hence not getting vaccinated as antisocial will make people more willing to get vaccinated, more willing to try to persuade others to get vaccinated, and more willing to shame those who decline to get vaccinated, which in turn may pressure some of them into getting vaccinated after all.

While it is not known whether the Canadian and provincial governments used this specific research during the vaccination campaign, the types of messages described by the researchers closely resemble the messaging used in Canada. And an inevitable result of this type of messaging is that the group of people who decline the vaccines will be viewed negatively by the public, will be shamed and pressured, and will be considered to be a threat to other people’s health and economic well-being.

But to achieve this effect the underlying informational message about what the vaccines can and cannot do, what realistically the costs and benefits were, had to be distorted. The moral (some would say, moralist) messaging types described by the researchers rely to a significant extent on the arguments discussed in this section: that the vaccines are effective at preventing infection and transmission, that all unvaccinated people are at high-risk of hospitalization and so on. We saw that those arguments are weak or downright false. Without them, however, the moral messaging doesn’t work as well. And the moral messaging is an effective way to increase vaccination rates.

Ignoring alternative solutions

The apparent illogic of the arguments for the exclusion policies was not the only odd thing about the arguments used against the unvaccinated. The practical problem that the unvaccinated were now being blamed for — putting pressure on the healthcare system— was in fact solvable through other, non-coercive means.

And this solution had been available for a long time. But nobody seemed interested, least of all those politicians and media now demonizing the unvaccinated.

Unbeknownst to many, from late 2020 effective early treatment had become available. Monoclonal antibodies could prevent anywhere between 60–90% of hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk groups. Monoclonal antibodies could be given to high-risk individuals who test positive and the treatment only includes a single two-hour visit to an outpatient clinic. No hospital or ICU beds and staff are needed. While much more expensive than a vaccine, monoclonals are a lot cheaper than a lengthy hospital or ICU stay. And while not abundantly available, they were available nonetheless.

But monoclonal antibodies were barely being used. In Ontario, for example, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that one hospital, in Hamilton, started a special clinic to offer the treatment. That is just one clinic in a province of 14.7 million people. And it took a Herculean effort to convince hospital administrators and other relevant parties to make this clinic possible, as Zain Chagla explains in this conversation with Kwadwo Kyeremanteng:

There simply seemed to be very little interest among policy makers, hospitals and media to make this proven highly effective treatment widely available to the public — or at least to those who were at high risk — even though this treatment would effectively solve the very problem that all the other measures were implemented to solve.

And so a lot of unvaccinated people needlessly ended up hospitalized, in ICU or even dying, typically unaware that effective treatment existed that could have prevented their severe disease. Not only had their government and media not informed them about this life-saving treatment or helped make it available to them, the same government and media were now blaming them for being hospitalized, for using a hospital bed that could have gone to other more deserving patients.

Even worse, some influential doctors publicly wondered whether unvaccinated people should even have a right to lifesaving monoclonal antibodies therapy at all:

Monoclonal antibodies were not the only proven effective early treatment that could have been used. Off-label use of cheap and widely available antidepressant fluvoxamine showed great results in preventing hospitalization in vulnerable patients. But until very recently governments, hospitals and media did not seem interested in this option either.

While to an extent this was the result of a lack of trial data — or at least it was rationalized by claiming a need for more such data — it was telling that a lack of convincing trial data didn’t prevent a push for vaccines for young children and for boosters, and it was telling that despite very promising early results in mid-2020 and more and more promising results in the months that followed, it wasn’t until early 2021 that more large-scale fluvoxamine clinical trials were organized.

Moreover, doctors who were aware of fluvoxamine’s promising trial results may have been afraid to prescribe it to their patients off-label for fear of running into problems with their professional colleges. For example, in a decision in late September 2021 — when fluvoxamine’s impressive results were already widely known — the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, prohibited Dr. Patrick Phillips from prescribing this lifesaving early treatment to his Covid patients.

The lack of interest that media showed in monoclonal antibodies, fluvoxamine and early treatment in general can be illustrated by looking at the articles written by the Globe and Mail editorial board from late 2020 to late 2021. Searches for ‘monoclonal antibodies’, ‘fluvoxamine’ and ‘early treatment’ had zero results.

A search for ‘vaccines’, on the other hand, generated no fewer than 130 results.

And public health institutions seemed similarly uninterested. Here, for example, are Joe Cressy’s tweets about vaccines, fluvoxamine and monoclonal antibodies compared. Cressy is the chairman of the Toronto Board of Health.

This exercise can be repeated for seemingly any number of Canadian public health institutions or officials with the same results.

It is likely no stretch to say that if public health institutions had spent just 1/10th of the efforts they’d devoted to the vaccination campaign on making lifesaving monoclonal antibodies and fluvoxamine widely available — and on informing the public about their availability — thousands of Covid hospitalizations and deaths could have been prevented.

So while many in society had little empathy for unvaccinated people who ended up in hospital or ICU, and even blamed them for taking up healthcare resources, these unvaccinated patients were at least in part the victims of this peculiar lack of interest that governments and media — both so monomaniacally focused on vaccines — had shown in proven effective early treatments.

Mass Formation

Over the course of the year, something strange had happened to the vaccination campaign and to society’s relationship to vaccination. Initially hailed as the ticket out of the pandemic and the restrictions, it had now become abundantly clear that vaccines could not deliver on this promise. And that effective alternative tools were available.

But society’s embrace of vaccination had only become stronger. An embrace had become a stranglehold.

This process is nicely illustrated by another look at the Globe and Mail. The newspaper’s editorial board went through a rollercoaster ride of emotions during the vaccination campaign: At the start, in December 2020, there was a lot of hope and optimism, then in the spring a brief period of near triumph and celebration, followed over the summer by increasing worry that soon escalated into anger, intolerance and demonization, all the while clinging to vaccination as the only way out:

How did this happen?

How was it possible that the failure of mass vaccination to solve the original problem only seemed to increase society’s devotion to, and insistence on, it? And how could so much of society become so impervious to very obvious scientific arguments and very basic moral principles against the measures that were being imposed on the unvaccinated, and so blind to proven effective alternative solutions?

This is a complex question with complex, multi-facetted and necessarily incomplete answers. But some things seem key.

The first few months of Covid and lockdown had created a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety, and anger and frustration in society. And as many people were now told to stay home, normal life was disrupted and everyday activities that provide social interactions, exchange of knowledge and information, the nurturing and exercise of everyday norms and values, and that provide joy, meaning, purpose and distraction were now suspended.

Life became a lot emptier for many. What filled this emptiness was the constant looming threat of Covid as it was presented to the public through relentless and ubiquitous fear messaging coming from government and media: Case counts, hospitalization counts, death counts, daily or weekly press conferences, scary footage from ICUs, horror stories, models with frightening forecasts and so on. Government even used a behavioral science unit to create anxiety, fear and guilt in Canadians in order to get them to obey its directives.

The result was that Covid became the biggest thing in many people’s lives. And a very scary thing.

In addition, the lockdowns and other restrictions generated much fear, anxiety, frustration and anger of their own.

While people could take some measures to reduce the infection or disease risk for themselves and their loved ones, both Covid and the lockdown were such overwhelming and society-wide problems that individually people were impotent to solve or even address them. Typically a good way to address, work through and reduce the fears and anxieties caused by a problem is to face that problem and start taking steps to solve it. But this was difficult to do with society-wide problem like Covid and lockdown. Moreover, the messaging coming from government and media was that the solution lay in inaction — staying home—rather than action.

So for many the situation was that they were isolated at home, deprived of the activities that would normally provide meaning, purpose and distraction, constantly being fed fear messaging, and waiting for the government to tell them what they should or should not do.

Individual initiative and independent thought and action were replaced by inaction, obedience and ‘Following the Science’. And ‘the Science’ was whatever government and media said it was at any given time.

Moreover, in part because of the nature of problem — a highly transmissible virus — all sorts of everyday activities that had hitherto been part of the private domain over which government had no say now became subject to government rules and guidance: Visiting friends and family, playing sports, how to physically be with others, whether and how to have gatherings, who to invite and so. This reached absurd proportions that, however, followed logically from the framework with which society was operating.

And for some people simply knowing that an activity was recommended by a medical officer of health was reassuring. Recall what Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur wrote when he implored his readers not to mix with unvaccinated people: “If you are among people you can epidemiologically trust, you can live your life with the blessing of the chief medical officer of health.”

It is easy to lose sight of just how bizarre this statement is. People were told they must denounce their family and friends—shun them and ban them from Christmas celebrations— if they want to receive the blessing of their local government public heath official.

It was as if part of the population had converted to a fundamentalist religion, one where public health officials had come to function as a new priesthood who decide who you may spend time with and who not.

Until just two years earlier the main job of public health officials had been to close down dirty restaurants. But now they controlled every aspect of everybody’s lives.

The collective and increasingly totalitarian nature of the Covid problem was also apparent from the most important directives that were issued by the government: Lock down, mask up and get vaccinated. These were not optional tools that vulnerable people could use to help protect themselves. Instead they were mandatory rules that had to be followed by everybody. Or else they wouldn’t work.

So the collective pursuit necessitated collective participation.

We are all in this together. I’m doing my part. Are you doing yours?

People who did not participate were therefore rule-breakers who were selfishly endangering society.

Battling Covid in this way became a society-wide collective pursuit that filled the void created by lockdown. It provided a new kind of meaning and purpose to people’s lives, created a new kind of connection to others, and promised eventual liberation from the fear and anxiety caused by Covid and lockdown.

For people not caught up in the frenzy, this was all a strange and unsettling process to observe. A large part of society seemed to be in a process of ’mass formation’.

Ghent University psychology professor Mattias Desmet describes the process of mass formation as one in which a large group in society together enter an almost hypnotic state where their attention is almost entirely focused on just one aspect of reality, to the exclusion of everything else. The process can occur when the following conditions are met in a society:

  1. A lack of social bond
  2. People experiencing life as meaningless and without purpose
  3. The presence of free floating anxiety and free floating psychological discontent
  4. The presence of free floating frustration and anger

While these elements were already present in society to some degree pre-Covid, the combination of Covid and lockdown only intensified them. Desmet explains what could happen in such a situation:

If under these conditions a narrative, a story, is distributed through the mass media, indicating an object of anxiety, and at the same time providing a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety, then the following happens or might happen. All the free floating anxiety, which is extremely painful because it always threatens to turn into panic… is attached to, connected to, the object of anxiety indicated in the narrative.

And there is a huge willingness to participate in the strategy to deal with this object of anxiety because in this way, people feel that they can control their anxiety and their psychological discontent better. So all this anxiety connects to the subject of anxiety, and there is a huge willingness to participate in the strategy and that leads up to something very specific. People suddenly feel connected again in a heroic struggle with the object of anxiety. So a new kind of solidarity, a new kind of social bond and a new kind of meaning, of making sense, emerges in society.

And that’s the reason why people follow the narrative, why people buy into the narrative and why they are willing to participate in this strategy, even if it is utterly absurd. Because the reason why they follow it has nothing to do with the fact that it is correct or accurate or scientific. Not at all. The reason why they buy into the narrative is because it leads to this new social bond. This new solidarity.

Clips from a conversation that podcast host Dan Gregory had with Mattias Desmet (full length interview):

In this collective state of mind the focus is narrowed to a single problem — Covid — to the exclusion of all other problems, concerns, considerations, values and goals in life. The countless negative consequences of the lockdowns and other restrictions — closed schools and businesses, inability to see friends and family, people in hospitals suffering and dying alone, government spending enormous amounts of money that can no longer be spent on other tings — are suffered without much protest.

And from very early on this single problem was also seen as having only a single possible solution: vaccination. Any negative consequences and opposition to the vaccination program — unprecedented rates of adverse events, people who did not want to take the vaccine being coerced into taking it, people who continued to decline being demonized and excluded from much of society, often losing jobs, careers, educational opportunities, being deprived of organized religious activities and so on — were barely acknowledged or justified as being necessary for the greater good.

Now it is by no means the case that the entire population is under this kind of spell. Desmet, for example, suggests that in mass formation maybe 30% of a population are true believers, 40% just go along with the basic narrative and comply with the new rules and norms without deep conviction, and another 30% may oppose what’s going on.

The exact percentages may vary by population and situation. In Canada, for example, for much of 2021 the group that was opposed to the restrictions and that questioned the dominant Covid narrative and key aspects of the vaccination campaign seemed to be considerably smaller than 30%. Just recall the opinion polls that showed that overwhelming majorities supported excluding the unvaccinated, or expressed not feeling any empathy for unvaccinated people who get sick with Covid.

Moreover, the 30% that are true believers seems to be heavily overrepresented in the institutions that are so important for the formation of public opinion: Media, politics, public health, academia, popular culture, as well as on social media sites such as Twitter.

Not everybody who actively and vocally supports the measures or the vaccination campaign is necessarily a true believer, though. Careerists and other kinds of opportunists and power-seekers will see which way the wind blows and go along, seizing the opportunity to advance their careers.

There will also be leaders who are true believers in some sense but who feel comfortable not being honest to the public because they think being honest could hurt the cause. For example, politicians or public health officials may genuinely see vaccinating as many people as possible as the best solution but think that being honest with the public about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines or offering unvaccinated people the option of monoclonal antibodies or fluvoxamine would cause too many people not to get vaccinated.

And many others involved in key parts of the vaccination campaign, such as doctors, scientists, public health officials journalists, teachers and so on, will go along simply because they are not used to questioning decisions made by higher-ups. Or if they do have such concerns they remain quiet or even continue to play an active role simply because the costs of speaking up are too high.

A fairly common phenomenon described by the few prominent prominent scientists and journalists who had openly expressed skepticism or concerns about lockdowns or about the mass vaccination campaign — as well as by some similar but less prominent independent researchers, writers or podcasters — was being contacted through email or Direct Message by mainstream doctors, scientists or other public figures telling them they agreed but could not risk speaking out.

So something like a process of mass formation combined with a fear of speaking out seemed to be suffocating intellectual discussion in society. It should be noted, however, that it is not entirely clear what kind of epistemic and ontological status this theory of mass formation and the processes described in it have. The social world is a complex place with an infinite number and variety of processes, incentives, institutions, actions, intentions and beliefs at play at micro, meso and macro levels at any one time. A theory like mass formation is perhaps best not understood as a falsifiable scientific theory that accurately identifies processes with causal explanatory power on the macro-level it operates at but as a basic interpretive framework that helps make sense of some of the things we are seeing, something more like historical Verstehen than like physics or even like climate science or macro-economics. The basic model can’t capture all the things that are relevant to understanding the phenomena it studies but it can help make sense of some, as can other complementary or even alternative frameworks.

But whatever the specific status of the theory of mass formation may be, Covid had undeniably become the primary focus of attention in society, and dissent from the dominant narrative had undeniably been suppressed. This suppression was so successful that most of the people who just went along with the narrative were simply unaware that there were serious respectable experts who dissented from what was going on. They were unaware that in the face of a virus with the lethality of SARS-CoV-2 advocating for lockdowns or mass vaccination with an experimental leaky vaccine in the middle of a pandemic was not at all the consensus opinion in mainstream science at any time before March 2020. Most of them also did not know that a small but definitely not insignificant part of the general public —normal people just like them— were similarly not on board. Dissent had been successfully associated with the fringe, with unserious and suspect figures and movements, so that it would be quickly dismissed by the public.

So the group of true believers as well as careerists, led by key people in key institutions who — either out of true belief or opportunism — pushed the narrative forward and got the large group of people who are not true believers but who for whatever reason simply go along, to do and believe what they told them to do and believe. They did this through relentless and ubiquitous messaging or propaganda, by making key policy decisions that continually created new facts on the ground, and by actively suppressing, ridiculing, smearing or otherwise marginalizing dissent.

They also did this through the directives they issued, despite the fact that the practical effect of those directives was typically questionable at best. Mask wearing and social distancing took on symbolic value. They became a way to publicly signal one’s participation in the collective pursuit, and a way to constantly remind one another of the looming threat.

The fact that the masks typically worn by the public were effectively useless at stopping the spread of the virus was irrelevant. The fact that you could easily become infected in indoor spaces with poor ventilation even if you practiced social distancing was irrelevant for much of 2020. Time and time again official messaging gave the public highly exaggerated beliefs about the effectiveness of the public health directives that had been issued, or rather, about the rituals they were told to practice. As a result, people greatly overestimated the protection offered to them by these measures. They exposed themselves to greater risks than they would have done had they had accurate beliefs. But none of this seemed to matter to the people in charge. The symbolic significance seemed more important than the danger created by the false sense of security.

Once the vaccines had arrived, the act of vaccination too took on a crucial symbolic, psychological and social function: It became an initiation ritual.

It signified people’s entry into the New Normal, the world that was promised to them when they were afraid and anxious, and under lockdown and threat from the virus.

By having something transgressive and irreversible done to them, and by being praised for it by the community, vaccination created a psychological acceptance of and commitment to this New Normal.

And like other initiation rituals, vaccination created a distance between the old and the new, and a separation between those who have gone through it and those who decline to.

Over time, as the vaccines failed to contain the virus and end the lockdown, vaccination ceased to be treated as a practical tool used to achieve a practical result. Instead it had transformed into and end to itself, one with tremendous symbolic significance.

Marginalizing dissent

A society in the grips of mass formation cannot allow anybody or anything that questions or nuances the view of Covid as the supreme problem and of vaccination as the only way out. Any questions, nuances or skepticism will be perceived as existential threats that have to be attacked and destroyed.

The people that did voice objections or engaged in civil disobedience were quickly shouted down, or even arrested, typically to the applause of the majority.

For the public it was understandable that they did not question what they were being told. To question the effectiveness of masks, distancing, lockdowns and later vaccines would be to have to seriously entertain the possibility that all the people in charge, all the experts and all the policy makers — literally all of them — were wrong. And that some fringe, extremist outsiders were right.

Worse, it would mean entertaining the possibility that the people in charge — the people they now relied on to guide them through the pandemic — may have been intentionally lying to the public. And that these leaders may not have the public’s best interest at heart.

Questioning masks, distancing, lockdowns and vaccines meant you had to be open to this possibility. Few people could even fathom such a thing.

And it was not just the people in charge who appeared to be of one mind. All key institutions in society seemed to be uncritically behind the lockdowns and the mass vaccination program. This was one of the most striking and troubling revelations of the past two years: There was little to no resistance from within civil society to the narrative pushed by the government. Churches, mosques, religious organizations in general, newspapers, radio stations, TV networks, labor unions, organized amateur and professional sports, universities, schools, libraries, professional associations (such as colleges of physicians) and so on, all accepted the basic narrative and policies. Many even joined in the execution or enforcement of the policies. Some examples: Vaccination clinics facilitated by schools or sports organizations, calls by religious leaders for everyone to get vaccinated.

Other than minor lobbying efforts to advance an institution’s narrow interests, civil society showed near complete agreement with or worse, subservience to government power. Particularly, very few organizations in civil society spoke out against the exclusion of the unvaccinated from much of society, or committed acts of civil disobedience to include the unvaccinated. Moreover, very few doctors protested the violation of the doctor-patient relationship that had occurred when the prime minister announced there would only be “a few, extremely narrow” grounds for medical exemptions, and when colleges of physicians enforced this directive by stipulating what that extremely narrow set of rules was, and by threatening or even investigating doctors who sought exemptions for their patients because they believed, based on their medical expertise and their professional knowledge of the patient, that a first or second dose would harm that patient.

What caused this almost complete lack of resistance? Perhaps these institutions too were caught up in the process of mass formation. Or a sufficient number of constituents or stakeholders might be caught up in it, which would make it difficult for the leadership of an institution to resist. Or the explanation could have to do with incentives. Many such institutions receive government funding or privileges which they may not want to jeopardize, or they believe they could face difficulties in future dealings with the government if they now resist. Government may have also directly funded some organizations specifically to participate in the promotion or execution of its Covid policies. And there was ample direct and indirect government funding of media, for example through the sheer amount of advertising government did to promote its views and policies. Institutions may have also been concerned about negative media coverage if they dissented from the narrative. Just think of the negative media coverage that private businesses that resisted lockdown policies received.

Whatever the exact cause is of the near-unanimous support of civil society for the government’s narrative and policies, it was another crucial element in the process in which the focus in society had narrowed to one single problem and one single solution, and an overwhelming majority of society came to be participants in this collective pursuit. It made it possible for the government’s messaging to be ubiquitous, to be repeated relentlessly in all sectors of society, making it literally unavoidable. And it marginalized dissent even further.

Jacques Ellul wrote about the requirements of propaganda:

Propaganda must be continuous and lasting — continuous in that it must not leave any gaps, but must fill the citizen’s whole day and all his days; lasting in that it must function over a very long period of time. Propaganda tends to make the individual live in a separate world; he must not have outside points of reference. He must not be allowed a moment of meditation or reflection in which to see himself vis-à-vis the propagandist, as happens when the propaganda is not continuous. At that moment the individual emerges from the grip of propaganda. Instead, successful propaganda will occupy every moment of the individuals life: through posters and loudspeakers when he is out walking, through radio and newspapers at home, through meetings and movies in the evening. The individual must not be allowed to recover, to collect himself, to remain untouched by propaganda during any relatively long period, for propaganda is not the touch of the magic wand. It is based on slow, constant impregnation. It creates convictions and compliance through imperceptible influences that are effective only by continuous repetition. It must create a complete environment for the individual, one from which he never emerges. And to prevent him from finding external points of reference, it protects him by censoring everything that might come in from the outside.

The near-totalitarian reach of the government’s Covid and vaccination narrative made it very difficult for those not actively and independently investigating the narrative to sense that the scientific and moral basis for that narrative was not as strong as it was being made out to be. Censorship and other forms of marginalization of experts who disagreed with the dominant narrative was widespread and intense.

Moreover, the idea that all the people in charge were wrong was difficult enough to fathom, but the idea that just about everybody else in society — even outside of government and without an apparent interest in promoting the government line — was wrong too?

All this meant that it became next to impossible for basic scientific and moral arguments that undermined the narrative to enter the minds of most people.

This is why the hard data about waning effectiveness of the vaccines, and the very simple and powerful arguments against the vaccine passport, were simply mostly ignored. To the extent that they were acknowledged, they still had little to no effect on many people’s commitment to vaccination as the only solution.

Neither had the availability of proven effective early treatment. To the extent that such treatment was acknowledged at all, it was not seen as a viable alternative or as a complementary solution but as a threat: If unvaccinated people knew that monoclonal antibodies or fluvoxamine were available, they might be less likely to get vaccinated.

But no matter how much people believed in vaccination as the way out of the pandemic and lockdown, and no matter how much unvaccinated people were excluded from society and skeptics denounced and deplatformed, the practical failure of the vaccines to deliver on the promise of liberation was undeniable, scientifically speaking.

Psychologically speaking, however, this reality had to be denied. Because once acknowledged, it would mean there was not going to be an end to the fear and anxiety, to the anger and frustration. And at the same time, it would mean that there would be an end to that collective heroic pursuit that had provided so many people’s lives with meaning and purpose.

So there would be no relief, no deliverance, no hope and no comfort. This state of cognitive dissonance and emotional turbulence is an impossible one to exist in.

And it was the out-group of vaccine decliners and skeptics that provided a convenient target for these emotions. The unvaccinated became the object that the free-floating frustration and anger in society now became attached to.

While in normal times it is not socially acceptable to express strong negative emotions towards others publicly, it now became possible and socially acceptable to openly express anger, frustration and hatred towards the skeptics and especially to the unvaccinated, by blaming them for everything that was still wrong. This provided relief. And in fact, doing so was not just tolerated, it had become a morally sanctioned activity, as it was in the service of this greater good: Shaming the unvaccinated into getting their shot, and discouraging the vaccinated from being around the unvaccinated.

So anger, hate and even cruelty had been given a moral blessing. Which meant there were few constraints left on how far the demonization and dehumanization of the unvaccinated could go.

The pandemic response had started with ‘Two weeks to flatten the curve,’ then quickly transformed into ‘Lockdown until we have a vaccine’. But now that the vaccines hadn’t delivered on their promise of liberation, mass formation was taking a darker, more sinister turn.

It can’t happen here?

Numerous factors had combined to create a volatile situation:

  • the high levels of anxiety, psychological discontent, anger and frustration in society
  • the monomaniacal focus on Covid as society’s greatest problem and on vaccination as the only solution
  • the lack of interest in alternative practical solutions
  • the unscientific and purely punitive basis for many of the measures against the unvaccinated
  • the large public support for those measures
  • the openly hostile and dehumanizing rhetoric
  • the purging of the unvaccinated from key institutions
  • the dearth of voices speaking out against any of this

Instead of acknowledging reality, looking for the best practical ways forward and demanding accountability from the leaders who had failed to provide practical solutions that were actually effective, the anxiety and discontent and anger that had gripped society now found their psychological and emotional expression in the form of openly expressed hatred of the unvaccinated.

And as we saw earlier, the policies and rhetoric against were only escalating further in early 2022, including calls to criminalize the unvaccinated.

Mattias Desmet warned about the danger of mass formation leading to atrocities.

When the opposition is silent, when the opposition stops to speak out. At that moment, exactly, the totalitarian state commits its most cruel atrocities.

So what was going to happen in Canada?

In the past century there have only been a few other examples of Western societies that have so thoroughly excluded and demonized one group in society. We know how those ended and while it is tempting to assume that such things could not happen in Canada, it would be just that: an assumption.

But how close was Canada to the stage in which atrocities could happen?

Arguably quiet atrocities were already taking place. Recall the lack of interest government had shown in monoclonal antibodies therapy. And recall how effective such therapy was in preventing severe disease and death among unvaccinated people.

In January physician Vincent Lam published a remarkable article in the Globe and Mail in which he argued that by making expensive but highly effective monoclonal antibodies available to unvaccinated people, the Canadian healthcare system showed that it still cared about them:

What Lam didn’t discuss was the fact that for the past year that same healthcare system had almost entirely ignored monoclonal antibodies. Which raised the obvious question what this said about the healthcare system’s feelings towards the unvaccinated then — and the lengths to which that system and the government behind it were willing to go to enforce compliance with its vaccination program, or to punish those who declined to participate.

The severe disease or even deaths of thousands of unvaccinated Canadians could have been prevented if the government had made monocolonal antibodies or fluvoxamine available earlier. Instead they were left to suffer and even die, needlessly.

Moreover, the framing of the article suggests a power relation in which the government does not treat unvaccinated people as citizens with the same rights as everybody else, or as tax payers who had paid into the healthcare system their entire lives, but as subjects that the government was free to make life or death decisions about, depending on how much that government still cared about them.

So arguably quiet atrocities had already been happening. Some would say that another example was the removal of unvaccinated people from organ transplant waiting lists — at the very least the removal of those with immunity through prior infection and those who stood to receive (parts of) an organ from a family member or friend.

Another sign of concern came in January when politicians, experts and media opened the discussion about mandatory vaccination, an idea that quickly became normalized, and came to be regarded as an in principle acceptable policy tool that reasonable people can reasonably disagree about.

But if vaccination becomes mandatory it means that people who continue to decline the vaccine will at the very least receive a fine. For the policy to be effective, that fine would have to be significant and/or recurring. If people can’t or won’t pay those fines they will likely be put in jail, or prison even. This for example was the law that was passed by parliament in Austria. And as in the present atmosphere it would be unthinkable for unvaccinated people to be jailed together with vaccinated people, it would mean that there would be special jails or prisons for the unvaccinated.

Take a moment to ponder that: Special jails or prisons for the unvaccinated, for the crime of being unvaccinated.

This kind of scenario may sound fantastical but it logically and directly follows from a mandatory vaccination policy. And that policy was being openly and seriously discussed by government and media.

And who knows, if Omicron had not been as mild, and if the unvaccinated were being blamed for transmitting it at high rates, or for being hospitalized at high rates, or even for being a breeding ground for potential new and even scarier variants, there may well have been support for the idea of putting unvaccinated people under house arrest, as the Austrian government had done. Those who do not obey or who live together with vaccinated people may well have been preemptively moved to special detention centers, like the Japanese-Canadians had been.

It is easy to assume that this would never happen because clearly the scientific and moral arguments for such a policy would be too weak and suspect. After all, the vaccinated were carrying and transmitting the virus about as much as the unvaccinated. But what we saw this past year, and what is so difficult to grasp let alone accept, is that the quality of arguments simply does not matter.

The arguments behind the exclusion policies that had been in place since the summer were poor and scientifically nonsensical as well. That didn’t stop an overwhelming majority of the public from supporting them.

Rhetorically, there were clear danger signs as well. In late November, Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur had written an article wondering “what to do about” “anti-vaxxers”. Arthur made the usual distinction between the “vaccine hesitant” and the “anti-vaxxers”, leaving no conceptual room for what in fact may well have been a majority of “vaccine decliners.” Since they are not vaccine “hesitant” and they clearly made a conscious choice not to get vaccinated these people presumably would qualify as “anti-vaxxers” in Arthur’s view, even though they don’t appear to fit his insulting characterizations of them. And, Arthur argued, “anti-vaxxers” may pose a security threat to the rest of society:

The problem is what to do about them. Canada’s anti-vaccine population isn’t big, but it’s big enough to cause problems…“I mean, even farcical people, you know, they have fists and can carry baseball bats, right?” says Amarasingam. “It doesn’t matter that they’re morons. It’s a question of what’s their propensity for violence? And how do we secure the environment enough that they can be taken down if needed?”…truly anti-vaccine crowd is not just persistently and urgently misinformed; it has a feral element that is antithetical to a civil society…whether it is mere propagandistic brain poisoning or merely the rage of someone in a world they can’t quite process, it’s there…So what do we do? How do we live with people who are fundamentally anti-societyAppropriate law enforcement, and more enforcement of public health regulations, should be a startUnreality is a stubborn virus on its own. Every anti-vaxxer is a symptom: something broke and they were lost, but they are a part of our society, too. And it’s hard to know what to do about that[emphases mine. KS]

The acknowledgement at the end that “they are a part of our society, too” does little to balance the rhetoric from the rest of the piece: What does one do about “farcical people”, “morons”, who are full of “rage” and “fundamentally anti-society,” “ who may have a “propensity for violence” and could “cause problems”, because in them there is “a feral element that is antithetical to a civil society”?

It’s not hard to imagine that a single violent incident allegedly involving a member of this group could trigger a wider crackdown against the entire group, in order to “secure the environment” and “take them down.”

The incident or accusation would not even have to be true to be effective. We saw this in February of this year when a wide variety of outright false or questionable accusations were launched against the trucker convoy. These accusations were then used to create public support, and the legal and political justification, for the unprecedented invocation of the Emergencies Acts and a subsequent brutal crackdown. Incidentally, the internment of the Japanese-Canadians had been made possible by the invocation of the precursor to the Emergencies Act, the War Measures Act.

A few months earlier the prime minister responsible for invoking the Emergencies Act had expressed some troubling rhetoric in his own right. In September, Justin Trudeau first smeared what he called “anti-vaxxers” as “anti-science”, “racist” and “misogynist”, and then openly said the country, and he as its leader, had to make a choice about whether it should “tolerate” these people who are “taking up space”:

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FRpazZK1ce8Q%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DRpazZK1ce8Q&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FRpazZK1ce8Q%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtubeCredits: RAIR Foundation

When a political leader openly refers to one group of people in society as “taking up space” and asks whether society should “tolerate” them, one can’t help but wonder what it would mean if the decision were made not to tolerate them.

Trudeau’s rhetoric suggested he no longer viewed people who made a conscious choice to decline the vaccine as fellow citizens deserving of rights, but instead as mere obstacles that he in principle is within his power to remove, or otherwise deal with. To protect the majority.

This was far from the only time that Trudeau’s words suggested he no longer thought of unvaccinated people as citizens who have rights:

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FGkwYFTJqb6k%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DGkwYFTJqb6k&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

In addition to newspaper columnists and politicians, there was troubling rhetoric from doctors as well. Just recall that Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, had urged an end to “the mixing of unvaccinated and vaccinated.”

This kind of rhetoric from the leader of the country and from top government doctors, as well as the escalating demonization and dehumanization of the unvaccinated at the start of the new year, combined with the normalization of increasingly radical policy proposals targeting them, were clear signs the process of mass formation was entering a dangerous new phase.

We may, however, never know how close Canada came to regressing from hatred and cruelties to outright atrocities. Because unlike in the summer when the month-long intense media campaign for vaccine passports and mandates was followed by the implementation of these measures, the intense month-long campaign that had started in late December seeking even stricter measures against the unvaccinated was not successful. By the end of January the tide was turning.

Averted or postponed?

At least four major developments seem to have weakened the process of mass formation, and put a brake on the escalation in rhetoric and policy proposals.

For one thing, Omicron had been a game changer. Because it is so transmissible, large parts of society had gotten infected. Vaccinated people at least as often as unvaccinated people. So all the double and triple vaccinated people now knew first hand that the vaccine was not protecting them against infection. Even the people who had been triple vaccinated and had continued to be careful to try to avoid exposure to the virus were not safe from Omicron. What’s more, the large number of infections generated considerable natural immunity in society, making vaccination less important. So vaccination had become both less effective and less necessary.

And because for most people it was relatively mild, Omicron also reduced the fear of the virus in society. Omicron transformed Covid from an abstract collective threat into a concrete, personally experienced and typically not very scary problem. And it did so for many. By the end of January there was hardly anybody left who had not themselves experienced Omicron or who did not personally know people who had had it. And that personal experience was so incompatible with the belief of Covid as the supreme threat — and of vaccination as the talisman that would protect against it — that it weakened the spell people had been under.

The Omicron wave was accompanied by a big push for booster shots, including proposals to make the booster part of the requirement for the vaccine passport system. Within the framework of the vaccination campaign this made sense because two shots were hardly effective anymore. But even boosted people were far from safe from from getting infected with Omicron, although a booster did seem to still provide protection from severe disease. Data from around the world, however, suggested this protection was of much shorter duration than that of the previous doses. So skepticism about the vaccination program increased: A booster every few months did not seem like an appealing option. Especially not given the side-effects that so many people had experienced with the vaccines.

Opinion polls reflected changing views about vaccination.

The booster rate was still under 50% of the total population at the time of this writing, which clearly makes including the booster shot in the requirements for the vaccine passport problematic. You can’t exclude the majority in society from society.

A second development came in the form of pharmaceutical companies launching lucrative new antiviral drugs intended for early treatment of Covid.

The cheap and proven effective generic drug fluvoxamine (about $4 per treatment) that unlike monoclonal antibodies can be taken at home had been almost entirely ignored by the Canadian government throughout the vaccination campaign. Health Canada never authorized it for the treatment of Covid. But the government’s lack of interest in early home treatment changed with the arrival of Pfizer’s Paxlovid ($670 per treatment) and Merck’s molnupiravir (close to $1,000 per treatment). This was despite the problem that Paxlovid was known to have dangerous interactions with several medications commonly used by people in the at-risk groups that Paxlovid was intended for. And despite molnupiravir’s highly questionable safety and efficacy data as well as its potential to generate dangerous new variants.

Faced with the failure of the vaccination program to contain the virus or sufficiently protect the vulnerable and presented with these new drugs by the pharmaceutical companies, the government signed large contracts for both Paxlovid and molnupiravir in January of this year. Health Canada quickly made Paxlovid the first drug authorized for early treatment at home.

While the drugs were presented as complementary to vaccines, not alternatives, it was another acknowledgement that vaccination alone was not going to end the pandemic.

Besides Omicron and new early treatment options, something else happened: The truckers came to town.

By the start of this year the unvaccinated had become a very small minority, and a thoroughly demonized and dehumanized one. Because the unvaccinated had also been banned from large parts of society, the vaccinated simply did not encounter and interact with the unvaccinated much anymore. And hardly anybody was standing up for them.

But then Justin Trudeau persisted in his plan to make vaccination mandatory for truckers crossing the border with the United States— despite the clear lack of evidence that this would have any meaningful impact on containing the pandemic or preventing strain on hospitals.

And the truckers said No.

Despite being condemned by their own official truckers’ association, and despite being smeared by Trudeau as a “fringe minority” with “unacceptable views”, the truckers put their foot down and embarked on a Freedom Convoy to Ottawa, meeting with great and ever increasing enthusiasm and support from Canadians along the way.

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FpcGsqLRyKo0%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DpcGsqLRyKo0&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FpcGsqLRyKo0%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

When they reached Ottawa on January 29 they were met by thousands, — perhaps tens of thousands — of supporters in frigid weather. The truckers settled in on Parliament Hill and some other spots throughout the city, and thousands of supporters joined or visited them throughout the week and many more on the weekends. The truckers and their trucks were now a very visible (and audible) and very unavoidable presence right in the federal government’s home town.

At the same time, other truckers had blocked several border crossings and with that, the daily movement of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods.

So for the first time in the pandemic a protest moment had created facts on the ground that forced the government and the public to pay attention.

Moreover, the truckers — who by no means were all unvaccinated themselves — and the large numbers of people cheering them on humanized and normalized the unvaccinated, and the people badly affected by the Covid restrictions. Far from an angry, fringe minority with unacceptable extremist views who pose a threat to society, many Canadians saw normal, friendly people with relatable stories and legitimate concerns and grievances.

Politicians and media went into overdrive trying to smear the truckers as racist, far right, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, Russia-backed and US-funded violent insurrectionists.

The smears no doubt had their desired effect on many Canadians. But many others couldn’t help but notice the positive — even festive — atmosphere of the protests, as well as the diversity of the protesters.source

This was the real Canada they were seeing.

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FHBwBXx3XUMc%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DHBwBXx3XUMc&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FHBwBXx3XUMc%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2F9ssRe83Rt7E%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D9ssRe83Rt7E&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2F9ssRe83Rt7E%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtubevideo credit: @rupasubramanya

In part due to the intense campaign by the government and most of the media to describe their presence in Ottawa as a siege or occupation — and to smear them with unfounded accusations of:

  • racism
  • vandalism
  • desecration
  • stealing food from homeless people
  • harassment
  • assault
  • arson
  • rape
  • possession of illegal weapons
  • a plot to overthrow the government
  • being backed by Russia
  • being funded by American extremists

a majority of the population opposed the truckers and their goals. But there was also considerable support for the truckers or at least sympathy for their cause.

As time went on, however, and the smear campaign in the media did not let up, support for the protests seemed to decrease and calls to end the protests intensified. Opinion polls showed strong public support for Trudeau’s eventual decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

The subsequent draconian measures taken against the truckers and supporters, such as the freezing of their bank accounts and the eventual brutal crackdown on the peaceful protesters sparked some criticism but seemed to be mostly accepted without much protest from the public.

Remarkably, however, six months later an article by Blacklock’s Reporter cast serious doubt on the accuracy of these opinion polls. As summarized in the Epoch Times:

A majority of Canadians opposed the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to the Freedom Convoy in February, according to confidential polling conducted for the federal government.

The polling results, reported to the Privy Council Office and obtained by Blacklock’s Reporter, found that most individuals surveyed thought the Emergencies Act represented “significant over-reach” by the government.

“Though a small number of participants felt implementing the Emergencies Act was a necessary step given the disturbance caused by the seemingly indefinite nature of the protests, most felt this action represented significant ‘over-reach’ by the federal government as they interpreted this as limiting the right of these Canadians to peaceful protest,” said the report titled “Continuous Qualitative Data Collection Of Canadians’ Views.”

The findings were based on federal focus groups held nationwide from February 2nd to 28, amid the truckers’ demonstration in downtown Ottawa. The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 and the protests were cleared during escalated police operations over the following weekend.

The Strategic Counsel, a market research firm, wrote the resulting polling report under a $2.4 million contract that required continuous monthly polling. Pollsters said they found support for the truckers across the country and that the Freedom Convoy was Canadians’ “most commonly cited issue by far” regarding the pandemic.

“A significant number identified with the frustration expressed by the protesters regarding ongoing public health measures even if they disagreed with some of the methods,” the report read.

“Among participants who were supportive of the protests and their aims it was felt the protests had been mostly peaceful and that these individuals had the right to express their opinion.”

The report also said that a small portion of individuals surveyed thought media coverage of the convoy was “one-sided” and portrayed the protesters “in a mostly negative light.”

“While some were hesitant to condone the disruption caused by the protests most of these participants felt the aim of the protest of ending Covid-19 mandates was justified and something they too supported,” it said.

The Liberal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act granted it wide-ranging powers to clear protestors, including compelling tow truck companies to remove trucks and vehicles parked downtown, and freezing bank accounts associated with support of the convoy without a warrant.

The Liberal cabinet revoked the act nine days later. Many Canadians surveyed in the poll said the short duration was “evidence the law should never have been used in the first place.”

“For those who felt the Emergencies Act was a disproportionate response on the part of the federal government, many thought there were other steps that could have been taken prior to invoking this legislation,” the report said.

“Most of these participants believed the protests to be primarily legal and peaceful and did not represent a public order emergency.”

The report said that some individuals surveyed “expressed a growing lack of trust in the federal government” and believed that the Emergencies Act infringed upon Canadians’ rights to peacefully protest.

“A few … were concerned the Emergencies Act could be used routinely going forward to limit public dissent,” it said.

These findings were in stark contrast with the opinion polls that were publicized at the time of the protests and that showed strong support for Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act and significant disapproval of the truckers’ actions. This raised the obvious question that has come up before in this article: To what extent are opinion polls used to influence public opinion rather than accurately reflect it?

If people are told that a large majority of the public approve of Trudeau’s decision and disapprove of the trucker protests, then they themselves may become more inclined to adopt those positions than they would have been if they had been told that a majority actually disapproved of Trudeau’s decision.

Moreover, the poll results likely also influenced discussion about the issue in the media. If journalists and commentators had believed that a majority of the public actually disapproved of Trudeau’s decision and supported the truckers’ right to continue their protest, their assessment of the situation and their reporting and/or opining on it might well have been different. This in turn could have further swayed public opinion in favor of the truckers.

It is hard to know which of the polls were more accurate. If the internal polling that showed majority disapproval of Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act better reflected public opinion than the widely publicized polls that showed supermajority support for Trudeau’s actions, then this would also call into question the accuracy of the other widely publicized polling results that were discussed earlier in this article, particularly those that showed Canadians’ shockingly negative views about the unvaccinated and their approval of unprecedented policies targeting that group.

And it would raise the question what would account for such inaccurate data to be generated and publicized: Maybe polling is simply a difficult job and so it is no wonder that pollsters get it very wrong sometimes. Or perhaps the explanation is less innocuous and the polls were part of some kind of campaign to manipulate public opinion. But if so, who was behind it, and for what purpose?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But wherever the truth may lie, it was undeniably true that as a result of the trucker protests more people had become aware that opposition to Covid restrictions was more widespread and more ‘normal’ than they might have thought before. Which in turn may have encouraged them to publicly voice their own opposition to these measures.

Numerous members of the opposition Conservative party now expressed support for the truckers, and the party was calling for an end to the federal mandates. Liberal MP Joël Lightbound dissented from his own party, expressing concerns about the divisive tactics used by the government, and he indicated that he was not the only Liberal MP with such concerns.

Moreover, provincial governments began announcing an end to their respective provincial vaccine passport system, although to what extent this was due to the trucker protests is impossible to say.

Mattias Desmet says that while outsiders cannot fully break the process of mass formation through arguments, moral appeals or action, if enough people continue to publicly speak out in opposition to what is going on, if enough opposition voices continue to be heard, the mass formation may soften.

It is when nobody speaks out in public anymore, when nobody sticks up for the dehumanized group, that atrocities may begin to occur.

if there are dissident voices, if there are dissonant voices that continue to speak out, then the hypnosis will become less deep. Gustave Le Bon in the 19th century said, usually dissonant voices will not have the power to wake up the masses, but they will make the hypnosis less deep, and they will prevent that the masses start to commit atrocities. So that’s what we all have to realize. We all have to realize, in my opinion, that it is not an option to stop speaking. We should continue to speak out. That’s the most important thing we can do.

Therein lies perhaps the most enduring legacy of the trucker protests: The truckers and their supporters spoke out. And they gave many others the courage to do the same thing, by showing that they were not alone, that many in society felt the same way.

For a significant percentage of the population, seeing the truckers and the support they had, and seeing mainstream politicians now routinely object to the rhetoric and policies targeting the unvaccinated, may well have made them less likely to go along with whatever the true believers might have wanted to do.

For those true believers and opportunists — including many in the media and politics — the trucker protests probably did exactly nothing to lessen their commitment to these policies. In fact, the protests may have only intensified their disgust with the unvaccinated and their supporters. But what changed was that now for the first time they had to reckon with the fact that opposition to those policies and empathy for the unvaccinated was, or had grown to be, more widespread than they had previously believed. Which put the brakes on the process they had got the country caught up in.

While provinces dropped their vaccine passport systems, the federal mandates are still in place. For no discernible reason, it seems, other than spite on the part of the Trudeau government,. Conservative MPs routinely call for the mandates to end, but while the Liberal government does not even attempt to give a plausible justification for them anymore, they have not ended them either. And media seem to mostly ignore the issue. So millions of unvaccinated Canadians are still not allowed to board trains, planes and ships to travel anywhere domestically or abroad (although there are legal ways to circumvent the ban).

Unvaccinated Canadians are also still banned from many public and private jobs. Many universities still have vaccine mandates in place for staff and students alike. Some private businesses, moreover, continue to ban unvaccinated people from their premises. But society is now undeniably much more open to the unvaccinated than it had been.

A fourth development that disrupted the process of mass formation came from a very different direction. Mattias Desmet says that one way in which a particular process of mass formation can end is if the object of the process changes. That meant that the mass formation does not end per se but the objects that the free-floating anxiety and anger attach themselves to changes.

Something happened in late February that appears to have at least temporarily done something like this: Russia invaded Ukraine.

The invasion sparked a Blitzkrieg of war propaganda in Western countries, including Canada. Presented as a simplistic moral tale of a smaller. liberal and Western-oriented fragile democracy under attack from its powerful authoritarian neighbor led by a brutal dictator-like leader with an insatiable drive to expand Russia beyond its current borders, the propaganda fueled intense outrage and anger directed at Russia, and all things Russian. Far-reaching policy measures such as the banning of media organizations were taken. Like with Covid, there was only one socially acceptable narrative and it was relentlessly pushed.

Public signaling of one’s support for Ukraine — and hence one’s participation in the heroic cause — became commonplace. Any dissent from the narrative was condemned as repeating Kremlin talking points. And any dissenters were accused of being witting or unwitting Putin puppets.

For the first time since perhaps the George Floyd protests — another situation in which society seemed to be momentarily in the grip of a mass formation-type process — Covid became of secondary importance.

A striking opinion poll appeared a few weeks into the war.

Vaccinated and unvaccinated Canadians had vastly different views on the war and the measures Canada should take in response. Unvaccinated people were much more skeptical of the narrative that seemed to unite the rest of the country in anger.

This was perhaps a sign that the division in Canadian society between vaccinated and unvaccinated people may indicate a more fundamental split, that between those who uncritically follow the dominant narratives and those that don’t.

This is, however, not to say that there cannot be good reasons for people to get vaccinated or to support tough actions against Russia, nor that there cannot be bad reasons not to get vaccinated or to oppose tough actions against Russia. And the Venn diagram of people who got vaccinated and people who oppose tough actions against Russia is not a circle.

An even more interesting poll could have asked the people who respectively supported and opposed tougher actions against Russia not whether they themselves were vaccinated but whether they supported vaccine passports and mandates. The overlap between those who opposed vaccine passports and those who oppose tougher sanctions against Russia may have been greater still.

Together the four developments described above — the Omicron wave, the launching of new early treatment drugs, the trucker convoy, and the Russia-Ukraine war — appear to have put the brakes on the escalatory policies and rhetoric targeting the unvaccinated, at least momentarily.

So where does Canada stand now when it comes to the unvaccinated? Most of the exclusion policies have ended. The rhetoric has softened. In fact, the subject of ‘what to do with the unvaccinated’ seems to have largely disappeared from the media.

The threat of Covid seems to have gone down. For now. And there are no lockdowns. For now. Most people — but by no means all — have mostly resumed their normal activities that give them joy, meaning, purpose and distraction in life. So the presence in society of free-floating anxiety, fear, anger and frustration may be lower now than it was during the past two years. And the sense of meaning and purpose greater. People’s social bond, moreover, may be stronger now that they are no longer physically isolated from each other.

A future in which atrocities could happen seems much more difficult to imagine now than it did just a few months ago.

On the other hand, no prominent Canadian public figure or institution has apologized for having supported vaccine passports and mandates, nor for the demonizing and dehumanizing rhetoric they used. There does not seem to be a sense in society that what had taken place was wrong, morally and scientifically.

Moreover, if there is anything we can learn from these past two years it is how quickly and totally things can change. How vulnerable society is to processes of mass formation. How easy it is for media and government to convince a large part of the public of a new narrative, and to get an even larger part of the public to acquiesce and go along. How quickly basic institutional constraints give way. And how impotent basic scientific principles and moral values are as constraints on these processes.

Nor are we the only ones who have learned things in the past two years. The people in charge now know how easily the public will give up their most basic rights during a perceived crisis, and how easy it is to create and sustain such a perception of crisis. They now have vast amounts of data about how the public reacts to certain kinds of messaging and policies, how division can be sown, and how incentive structures can be created to get people to go along. They saw how little effective resistance there was, and how easily that resistance was marginalized and suppressed. This knowledge is now available to them, to be used in the future.

We are not out of the woods yet. Far from it.

Koen Swinkels

Thanks to Susan Cody for proofreading and many helpful suggestions.

This article (or parts of the article) may be republished elsewhere. No permission needed. Please send a note with the link to kmswinkels@protonmail.com.

Update April 12: Added the paragraphs that describe the Yale vaccination messaging research at the end of the ‘Crumbling Narrative’ section.

Update April 15: Added paragraphs starting with the one about the Canadaland episode. Rewrote the ending of that section.

Update April 16: Added paragraphs about Ryan Stelter and Kerry Bowman.

Update April 24: Added two paragraphs about how the argument for vaccine passports can be extended in disturbing ways. Also some stylistic changes to the last two paragraphs of the article.

Update July 10: Added a discussion of this op-ed in the National Post.

Update August 14: Added the findings of this Twitter user about the infamous Toronto Star frontpage.

Update October 4: Added paragraphs about the CPSO’s advise to physicians to consider prescribing medication to a patient asking for a medical exemption or referring them for therapy, to “manage their anxieties related to the round the vaccine and not enable avoidance behaviour.”

Update October 9: Added discussion of the internal Strategic Counsel polling results uncovered by Blacklock’s Reporter that showed much stronger support for the truckers’ right to protest and much stronger disapproval of Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act than the publicly available opinion polls did at the time.

Update November 4: Several minor updates.