Our patience is running thin as we plod through yet another wave of COVID-19. We’re starting to get annoyed at political and medical leaders, who we loved and trusted at the beginning of the pandemic – and only because they haven’t got us through it yet.
Deep down, we know that everyone is doing the best they can in a situation that has never existed before. But we desperately want something – anything – to be done to make some headway against this vicious virus.
The unvaccinated are an easy target to blame. If everyone were vaccinated, there would still probably be some infections around, but they would be fewer and milder. We would be in a situation that our medical system could manage. Lockdowns and other restrictions could be eliminated, and we could get on with our lives.
Positive encouragement hasn’t managed to get enough jabs into arms. Banning the unvaccinated from restaurants and other venues hasn’t solved the problem. Fortunately, there’s still enough freedom in Canada that we don’t force medical procedures on people against their will.
Quebec has put forward one possible alternative: Tax the unvaccinated and make the tax high enough to make a difference. This has stirred up a blizzard of discussion. Is it legal? What about poor people?
However, many people feel the plan should go ahead because it’s only fair, and fairness is a major Canadian value.
The unvaccinated not only put the rest of us at greater risk of getting ill (though most likely not very sick), they’re also more likely to contract serious illnesses that they could have avoided. Instead, they’re putting huge demands on our medical system, creating financial costs and straining scarce health-care personnel who are already overstretched.
So why not tax them when it’s their lack of action that tends to land them in hospital? They could have taken steps – by getting vaccinated – to eliminate or drastically reduce the likelihood of needing hospital care.
Holding people responsible for the impact of their actions on their health may seem fair.
But it’s a push down a very slippery slope. Take Type 2 diabetes. It used to be called adult-onset diabetes until children started getting it. It almost always follows from bad diets, insufficient exercise and weight problems. These factors are under the control of the individual. Do we start taxing people with these habits?
How about just taxing fat people? We’ve seen that obesity makes one more susceptible to COVID and we know it contributes to many other diseases. Fit people are less likely to get sick than the unfit and also tend to recover faster. Should there be a tax on couch potatoes?
What about taxing people who avoid using sunscreen and risk skin cancer?
These questions and examples aren’t proposals for serious consideration. Rather, they’re to show that taxing those vulnerable to illness for whatever reason isn’t ideal. Taxes on sugary drinks, for example, don’t appear to make any difference in consumption patterns, even though they’re implemented to improve diets and lifestyles.
There are better solutions, although they may take longer and even though we’re running out of patience. One is better education on health matters, starting in elementary schools. Children have often played a positive role in discouraging their parents’ bad habits. Many adults have stopped smoking when their kids came home from school and told a smoking parent that they didn’t want them to get sick or die.
Another solution is to devote a much higher proportion of our health-care resources to prevention.
Instilling positive practices related to diets, exercise, vaccinations and other lifestyle components will reduce illness in the long run and significantly reduce the demand for medical treatment and acute care.
Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to do any medical prevention work because all our health-care resources are needed to deal with the pandemic, primarily in hospitals. We’re like the community firefighters who are so busy passing buckets to douse a blaze that they can’t stop to get a hose.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.