Experts call for human rights to be respected as Manitoba inches toward ‘cautious’ reopening

Experts are urging the province to remember human rights as it launches reopening plans and returns some freedoms to fully vaccinated Manitobans.

People who had their second vaccine dose at least two weeks ago will soon be able to dine inside with members of different households and attend large-scale outdoor sports and entertainment events. They’ll also be able to visit loved ones who are also fully vaccinated in personal care homes and hospitals.

“I think it’s appropriate … I think maybe the government is moving a bit slowly. We’ve seen that in the United States they’re moving much more quickly,” said Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

In what the province is calling a “cautious” reopening plan that begins Saturday, restaurants, bars, hair salons, and gyms can reopen with capacity limits. Officials say an app will be released to allow businesses to see an individual’s vaccination status.

Gathering numbers outdoors have increased to 10 people at private residences, but Manitobans are still prohibited from having guests over to their homes, as that has been a major source of transmission in the past, according to Dr. Brent Roussin.

McArthur said from an ethical perspective, the pandemic restrictions have justifiably restricted Canadians’ fundamental freedoms protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect public health.

But he said once people have received both doses of vaccine, have waited the two-week period and are no longer at great risk of getting or transmitting the disease, things change.

“Then it becomes very difficult ethically to justify restricting their fundamental freedoms,” he said.

More than 71 per cent of Manitobans have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 27 per cent have had both. On Tuesday, federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam hinted that guidelines for double-vaccinated Canadians are coming soon. 

The next target date in the province’s reopening plan is the Terry Fox Day on Aug. 2, when the goal is to have at least 75 per cent of eligible people immunized with a first dose and 50 per cent with a second dose. When that happens, capacity limits on businesses are expected to increase to 50 per cent.

Some doctors have warned that reopening under the current threat of the delta variant will result in a fourth wave, an unknown impact on children and further strain on the health-care system. Experts warn that it is absolutely critical to have Canadians double-vaccinated now to contain this variant’s spread, something the province is factoring into its plans.

“I’m glad that the province is moving forward but I think that they’re moving forward more cautiously than is maybe justified,” said McArthur, adding governments have the ethical responsibility to provide Canadians clear direction on their plans. 

“I think that once people are double-vaccinated they should simply be free.”

Think ‘flexibly and in supportive ways’

As some freedoms are returned to double-vaccinated Manitobans, we must ensure others aren’t being denied access to public services, says the acting executive director of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Karen Sharma said some people can’t access vaccines for medical reasons; others don’t have photo ID, health cards or the ability to book appointments.

“We have to be mindful that not everybody has equitable access. So we have to plan for the reality of our society which is one where people experience structural barriers,” she said.

She said some people are hesitant to get vaccines because of past negative experiences with the medical system, or for reasons tied to structural disadvantages. A lack of communication or mobility supports can be barriers too, she said.

Acting Manitoba Human Rights Commission director Karen Sharma says COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on BIPOC and people with disabilities. (Submitted by Karen Sharma)

She added photo ID is a “huge barrier” in some communities, such as among those experiencing poverty. She says accommodations and flexibility must be built into policy and executed by service providers so people aren’t being denied access.

“Whether that’s being able to eat a meal at a restaurant, gain access to a public space, go into a government office, et cetera,” she said. 

Getting everyone vaccinated is the ultimate goal, she says, but plans must take into account the realities of our society, and alternatives must exist.

“Whether that’s curbside, whether that’s monitoring capacity limits, so we can still have people who maybe haven’t accessed vaccine still gain access to areas of our society. We just have to really think flexibly and in supportive ways.”

McArthur adds it would be “entirely appropriate” for some with medical or other legitimate reasons to be exempt from having to be double-vaccinated. 

“What we’d be basically doing is saying, the fact that you’re not double vaccinated, it does present a risk to the public. But the fact is, it’s not your fault. So we as a society are going to bear that risk so that you can have your freedoms,” he said.

“They’re small in number. And I think we could just bear that risk as a society. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

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