The unvaccinated 'deserve what they get'? Not in my Calgary

Anila Lee Yuen, head of Calgary's Centre for Newcomers, pleads for understanding as Alberta debates how to deal with those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

There must be consequences but serve them with compassion, argues Calgarian Anila Lee Yuen

People protesting public health restrictions and the idea of vaccine passports gathered at several locations around Calgary in May. (Submitted)

This column is an opinion from Anila Lee Yuen, CEO of the Centre for Newcomers and co-chair of the provincial Calgary COVID care table. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

There's a new trend that I'm seeing in my city and I'm quite disappointed.

It's definitely because of the pandemic. We are all tired; we've lived through three waves and now -- even though most of us jumped at the opportunity to be vaccinated -- experts say a fourth wave is beginning. 

But the trend I'm worried about is intolerance.

Some online views I've read seem over the top; saying it's Darwinism, that the unvaccinated deserve what they get. But even in casual conversation, I've heard people suggest health care shouldn't be free for unvaccinated people.

Then I was scrolling Facebook last week and a dear friend suggested all unvaccinated people without medical reasons for being so should be banned from "rational society."

I stopped short. He's a kind, community-minded person.

"Huh," I thought. "We're all starting to draw the line now." This is only going to get more divisive.

I truly believe vaccines are our only way out of this prolonged pandemic and there should be consequences for those who choose to not be vaccinated because it continues to put the rest of us at risk. But what happened to kindness and humanity as we work through this?

Because the situation is not always as straightforward as it seems. We saw that during the last waves in the northeast. 

For the past 16 months, as CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, I've been focused on helping some of Calgary's hardest-hit communities get through the pandemic. Since the second wave, I have also co-chaired the provincial Calgary COVID care table and saw first hand what drove the high COVID-19 case counts in my northeast community.

Some in Calgary were quick to blame and assume people in the northeast were disproportionately flouting restrictions. In reality, they were more exposed because they are our frontline workers and live in more densely populated areas. 

That's also why vaccination rates trailed the rest of the city. Many people couldn't access vaccines because they were working shifts, or they did not have reliable transportation, or they could not access the online or telephonic booking systems.

We know this because once we partnered with Alberta Health Services to hold walk-in, no appointment necessary vaccine outreach clinics in grocery stores and community hubs, our numbers significantly improved. The clinics vaccinated 3,000 people. 

Those efforts narrowed the gap. The East health zone is still trailing the rest of Calgary; only 71 per cent of residents age 12 and older have a first dose. But the Upper Northeast zone was at 86 per cent by Thursday, higher than many other zones in Calgary.

Plus, this health zone now has the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the city; it's the first time I've seen that since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr. Gaganjot Sandhu gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Elsa Tesfu at the pop-up clinic at Village Square Leisure Centre in northeast Calgary on June 6. (AHS)

But what now? The whole city is seeing vaccination rates plateau. Unvaccinated people will put medically-vulnerable vaccinated people at risk, too. But still, individual situations are not always straightforward. People across the city are confused by changing information they hear from government officials, without realizing that as information is learned, it is updated and improved upon. People are relying too heavily on their own "research" through information from YouTube videos, through WhatsApp forwards or on social media. This misinformation is a real problem.

I'm okay having a debate on vaccine passports. Maybe there are different times at the gym for unvaccinated people and requirements for some professions. If you work in daycare, you already need a measles, mumps and rubella shot.

Likewise for travel, showing vaccination status is not new. When I did the Hajj in 2003, I landed in Jeddah and had to show my immunization record with seven or eight vaccines. I felt like a pin cushion.

But let's keep empathy, the spirit of neighbours helping neighbours, somewhere in that conversation. I am a born and raised Calgarian; my extended family has been here since 1963, drawn by the promise of western hospitality, community spirit and a hometown feel. The past 50 years have mostly not disappointed.

This is the first time in my life that I have heard us collectively speak of death as a possible deserving punishment for anything, really, and it breaks my heart. We are all tired and exhausted from the pandemic and we want this to end.  But losing our humanity by saying things like "they deserve what they get" isn't going to help us get back to normal anytime soon.


Anila Lee Yuen is president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers and co-chair of the provincial Calgary COVID care table.


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