Vaccine distribution has been horrifically unequal. This is something we’ve known for a while, but the message was further reinforced this week. 

On Monday, Shelley Deeks, the vice-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), told reporters, “The mRNA vaccines [like Pfizer and Moderna] are the preferred vaccine […] Individuals need to have an informed choice to be vaccinated with the first vaccine that’s available, or to wait for an mRNA vaccine.” 

Deeks is effectively saying that if you aren’t in a hot spot, and you aren’t an essential worker, you should wait for the better vaccines. The message is clear: If you have an essential job, not only should you continue risking COVID-19 exposure at work, but you should carry whatever additional risk getting the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine may bring.

The chair of the NACI put it more bluntly. Speaking to CTV, Caroline Quach-Thanh made clear who is more expendable: “If, for instance, my sister was to get the AstraZeneca vaccine and die of a thrombosis, when I know that it could have been prevented and she’s not in a high risk area, I’m not sure I could live with it.”

And who is it that lives in hot spots by and large? The very people who can’t ‘stay home and stay safe.’ They are the people working in warehouses, meatpacking plants, factories, retail stores and construction sites. People working jobs that can’t be done via Zoom meetings.

They have no power over their working conditions, they have no power over whether they live in a hotspot, they have no power over what vaccines pharmacies are giving out. So why not pile on one more thing they have no power over?

There’s an underlying logic to what NACI is suggesting: If you’re more at risk of contracting COVID-19, getting the first available vaccine does make sense. But the people who are told to make getting any vaccine a priority are being spoken to in a way that highlights how expendable they are to decision makers.

Again and again this country’s leaders have made public statements about how valued and important workers are, all the while kicking them in the shins and telling them to get back below decks to scum class where they belong. And the thing is, the figures making these declarations aren’t able to see the implications of them. 

Theresa Tam, the head of the federal public health agency, said Tuesday she could “sympathize with people who find it difficult to follow the evolving advice,” as though the problem is that it’s too complex. 

Not only does their “evolving advice” encourage vaccine hesitancy, and make those who already received it feel like they were duped, they explicitly make the case that people at the bottom of the class ladder should just take what they’re given. They act like public health is just a lab experiment. And they speak with such contempt for the intelligence of the public they’re supposed to serve, as if we can’t see the meaning behind their words.

It’s also just so senseless. The risks involved with the AZ vaccine are rare, and quite treatable if they do occur. It’s frankly bizarre that the NACI would go out of its way to make this point, and then highlight it with such visceral anecdotes like the imagined story of Quach-Thanh’s sister. What’s even the value here? Why do any of this?

It’s damaging to the point that this week, New Brunswick Education Minister, Dominic Cardy, said: “If a vaccine is approved by Public Health Canada […] take that shot. Ignore NACI, ignore anti-maskers, ignore the people undermining faith in science, and do your part for New Brunswick.”

Explaining to the public the reasoning for public health decisions is important, but needlessly antagonizing and worrying people is not. NACI needs to consider why it’s casting doubt on particular vaccines and what it hopes to achieve. And public health doctors like Tam need to see that saying people just need to understand that science changes isn’t going to cut it. 

There are huge consequences to what NACI is saying, and it needs to be acknowledged that this is about more than a misunderstanding — this is about the underlying unfairness of how the pandemic has been handled.

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