COVID-19 and the Attack on Students

October 2021

I’m a third-year student at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). During lecture, one of my political science professors talked about coercion in the context of negative liberty—the absence of governmental interference with a person’s range of action. Imagine, he explained with an example, someone slapping a stranger on the street for listening to music that offends them. (“Someone” has psychic powers and thereby knows what song the stranger is listening to through headphones.) With aggressive force, “someone” gets what they want. The music stops playing.

I responded to this point with an in-class question to this effect: “Sir, you mentioned that coercion is forcing someone to act in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise act. So couldn’t it be said that coercion doesn’t always present itself in forms of violence, but can also happen systematically in the name of the greater good?” I brought up the issue of vaccine mandates/ passports and how people who would typically refuse medical intervention on, say, religious grounds are now taking COVID-19 vaccines to do things that were standard in our once-open-for-all society, like going to college or attending a funeral service.

According to Sir Isaiah Berlin, the political theorist who introduced the concept of negative liberty in 1958, my professor’s answer was, yes, invading one’s private sphere to achieve some bureaucratically prescribed ideal like the impossible eradication of COVID-19 through social conformity, albeit without hand-to-hand combat, is coercion. But it’s reasonable in this case, he also said, because if some hypothetical monster mutant strain of the virus emerges as a result of low to moderate vaccine intake and leads to an apocalyptic number of deaths, the unvaccinated are the equivalent of murderers. In the history of coronaviruses, has there ever been a variant deadlier than the original strain? A genuine question.

I understand my professor was in the process of satisfying both sides of the vaccine debate when he said, “by walking around unvaccinated, you are becoming a death machine, a killer, a terminator.” But such comments cannot be made without alienating and demeaning a group of students who for medical, religious, philosophical, or other valid reasons are not participating in Ontario’s mass vaccination program. These students are part of a group of people who are not only being denied access to basic aspects of society for exercising their right to refuse medical treatment but are also being discriminated against as scapegoats for government-imposed restrictions and the inevitable spread of an endemic coronavirus. Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, said it himself during a briefing a couple of months ago: COVID-19 is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” I can’t help but be reminded of the othering experienced by gay men during the AIDS epidemic.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if that opinion involves accusing unvaccinated people of continuing lockdowns and other restrictive measures. But what are the implications of this highly propagated opinion, held by the individuals who compose society, when it becomes public policy?

The popular argument in favour of federal and provincial vaccine mandates and penalties for those who don’t follow them seems twofold: 1) They are needed for vaccines to work. That is to say, “my shot will only protect me if you get one, too.” Of course, even if you are under the age of 60 and have a 99.98% chance of surviving infection, taking an interim order vaccine, still in clinical trials, is for your safety as well. And 2) They are needed to avoid a healthcare system collapse.

A few years ago, when my grandfather was at the end of his life, my family and I visited him in a Toronto hospital. We arrived to find him lying on a stretcher, wearing a pale blue patient gown with a spatter of blood across his chest, in a hallway lined with other families huddled around ailing loved-ones. When I tried to get the attention of a nurse to ask why my grandfather wasn’t in a proper bed, she walked by and ignored me. Then there’s an uncle of mine, who once waited for hours, with angina, to see a doctor before he eventually suffered a heart attack in the ER seating area of his local hospital.

Canadian hospitals’ incapacity to meet the needs of patients is not new. The COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted, not caused, the unresolved issues that have always made our healthcare system susceptible to collapse in a moment of crisis. To blame unvaccinated members of the public for managerial issues, lack of resources, and difficult access to doctors in our healthcare settings is a harmful, divisive, and absurd idea.

Compulsory vaccination and subsequent passports are not just discriminatory but illogical and ineffective. Vaccines do not prevent anyone from transmitting and catching the virus. They only ameliorate symptoms and curb the severe outcomes that are exclusive to the clinically vulnerable. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, vaccine mandates coerce people, especially those of university-age, into undergoing medical treatment they do not need. The risk of side-effects from the vaccine for most young people can be higher than any risk from the virus itself. Take the healthy men under the age of 30 who developed myocarditis and other kinds of heart inflammation after COVID-19 vaccination as an example.

Speaking from firsthand experience, I’m also inclined to say that lockdowns don’t work. My parents are working-class immigrants from Pakistan who throughout the pandemic—unlike the new laptop class of professionals and academics that works from home and never misses a paycheck—physically went to work, exposed themselves to COVID-19, got sick with the virus, and ultimately passed it on to me. I never worked a job, left the house for any place other than the grocery store, or visited anyone for nearly two years, and I still caught COVID. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, lockdowns are a luxury of the rich.

Infections suffered and survived by the COVID-recovered, like my parents, don’t matter in today’s world as vaccine mandates perpetuate a denial of natural immunity. Despite research that shows stronger, long-term protection against the virus through naturally acquired immunity rather than vaccine-induced protection, Ontario’s reopening plan, or steps back to normality, is entirely contingent upon mRNA vaccine uptake. All the while mRNA technology has never before been used in humans.

I thought twice about submitting my thoughts against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 policies for publication because of the possibility that I might be labelled a bad citizen, anti-vaxxer, or some misinformed crank—the way Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP party, has already called me and everyone else who attends anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine passport protests white supremacists.

But enough is enough. More lives have been sacrificed than saved since we decided to operate on the wisdom of a government that killed small businesses but allowed big-box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart to remain open, masked children even though COVID-19 poses less of a threat to them than the flu, and closed churches for worship but gladly used them as polling stations for a useless election.

Highly-credible infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Dr. Sunetra Gupta, and Dr. Martin Kulldorff, who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration in October of 2020, a statement that advocates for an alternative, compassionate approach to handling COVID-19, warn of greater excess mortality in years to come as a result of “lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health” caused by past and ongoing pandemic orders, such as school closures and other forms of lockdown. Rather than disregarding basic public health principles so as to overturn the structure of society for a single disease, they suggest that focused protection of the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are at risk from COVID-19 hospitalization and death, who would benefit from taking a vaccine, should be implemented.

When I brought my professor’s attention to the illiberal nature of vaccine mandates, I did so with basic facts about the virus, collateral damage, government overreach, and the diminished learning experiences that come with online offerings for unvaccinated students in mind, though I knew the controversial subject would possibly lead to the back-and-forth that did in fact heat up the Zoom chat window.

One of my classmates said that access to different places and activities depending on your vaccination status is a privilege, not a right. I would argue that vaccine mandates are a matter of rights and freedoms. If you tell a person that they either get jabbed or lose their job, you’re infringing upon that person’s right to security. If you tell a person that they cannot meet with friends and family for a wedding because they haven’t been inoculated, you’re limiting that person’s freedom of association. If you tell a person that they must have a medical procedure done for the sake of someone else, you’re meddling with that person’s right to bodily autonomy. “Privilege” has become something of a dirty word, yet these days it’s being used to justify, even celebrate, the new class system of haves and have-nots that vaccine mandates and “temporary” passports have created.

To this, my classmate might say individual rights don’t matter during a pandemic emergency. When the COVID-19 pandemic response has led to loss of life in immeasurable ways as the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration persistently tell us, if the measures we’re subject to cause more harm than the virus itself, I would say individual rights do matter.

The chair of the epidemiology department at Stanford University recently circulated a petition, with special reference to a comment made by one of her colleagues during a televised public health roundtable. The petitioners’ demand that the university president “clarify for the faculty the limits of public pronouncements when proclaiming on public health policy” comes after Dr. Bhattacharya, co- author of the Great Barrington Declaration and professor of medicine at Stanford, said there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove face masks work to contain the spread of COVID-19. Rather than engaging in scientific debate, their efforts seek to stifle it by limiting voices that challenge the official one-sided narrative on mask-wearing. It cannot be said that individual rights do not matter in certain circumstances when, as the aforementioned smear campaign shows us, rights like freedom of speech enable discourse—the only means we have to obtain and clarify the truth of our actions.

After speaking with unvaccinated students about so-called inclusive universities and their proof of vaccination requirement programs to attend in-person classes and use the facilities that all students are paying full price for, I’ve learned that most of them have considered dropping their studies rather than take an experimental vaccine for non-medicinal purposes. The option to request an exemption on medical or other human rights grounds is not guaranteed and, quite frankly, sugar-coats the reality that vaccine mandates are a systematic attack on unvaccinated students who, in accordance with their beliefs and values, take personal responsibility for their own health. As one University of Toronto student explained to me, “signing an ‘exemption’ provides the school with consent for imposing restrictions on the student as they see fit, depriving them of legal recourse.”

Really, unvaccinated students are pawns in a bigger game. During UTM’s Safe Return to Campus Townhall meeting in July, Vice-President and Principal Alexandra Gillespie admitted that because of privacy law, “even if we said to everybody ‘you have to get vaccinated,’ we then couldn’t ask them to prove that they have…Seneca College announced that they were going to mandate vaccines without asking their lawyers. If you then speak to Seneca College’s lawyers, they’re, like, throwing their hands up in horror and they’re, like, ‘we can’t do this, we don’t know why they said that we were going to.’ ” Hence heavy incentivization of vaccination along with support services that manipulate “vaccine hesitant” and “needle phobic” students into getting double-dosed so that they disclose their private medical information on what would appear to be a voluntary basis.

In closing, there isn’t much I can say other than this: witnessing the steady erosion of our individual rights and civil liberties for the past year and a half, the digitization of nearly every corner of our lives, the censorship of the scientific process, the role my university has played in contributing to the case of COVID mass hysteria and institutional segregation with its coercive vaccine mandate, and the passive attitudes of so many towards these things, has left me disillusioned, depressed, and fearful of the future.