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The Canadian Academics for Covid Ethics (CA4CE) is a group of researchers and scholars from fields spanning the natural and social sciences and humanities. It is concerned with the mismanagement of the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic response in Canada and around the world. 

The following commentary was written by Claus Rinner, Claudia Chaufan, Jennifer Tilk, Travis Smith, Valentina Capurri, Mary Sharpe, Heather Church and Jeffrey Graham.

The weeks after Labour Day mark the annual return to campus for Canada’s post-secondary students and faculty. It is a vibrant moment of reuniting with friends and colleagues, getting to know new people, sharing happy summer memories, and planning for the academic year ahead.

This year was no different, with happy faces – perhaps 95 percent unmasked on one downtown Toronto campus – socializing and going about their business. Yet, some community members are still embroiled in the two-year-old fear narrative around COVID-19 that largely lacks scientific and real-world evidence.

Given the threat of a return of harmful “health and safety” measures, several of us reminded our faculty colleagues, campus unions, and college and university administrators in a recent open letter that Canada’s post-secondary labour unions remain strongly committed to workers’ rights, including the unconditional right to refuse COVID-19 vaccination.

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The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents many contract faculty and teaching assistants at Ontario’s universities, published its recommendations for COVID-19 vaccination policies as early as April 2021, while the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the umbrella organization of Canada’s tenure-track faculty unions, followed with a formal policy template in August 2021 containing similar provisions, implying that faculty members who freely choose not to be vaccinated will be accommodated.

Nevertheless, in the 2021/22 academic year, faculty, staff, and students at Alberta and Ontario colleges and universities were placed on unpaid leaves, dismissed, de-enrolled from their courses, or threatened with these measures. The hardest hit groups were the most vulnerable, including students whose sincere exemption requests were summarily denied and whose on-campus jobs were taken away.

Likewise, contract faculty members had their ongoing contracts cancelled without notice, new contracts denied, and critical benefits and earned employment insurance payments withheld. Ironically, a policy introduced under the guise of the common good and “pulling together as a community” hit precarious workers the hardest, with an over-representation of women and other equity-seeking groups among them.

In contrast, British Columbia and Quebec followed a different, more considerate path, with Quebec never introducing mandatory vaccination for campus access and BC always maintaining a testing option.

It is now common knowledge that the mRNA vaccines do not prevent infection and therefore do not inhibit transmission either. Some studies purport to demonstrate that the injections reduce viral loads and transmission, yet this benefit does not play out in the real world, where higher vaccination rates are often associated with higher, not lower, rates of COVID-19 in the community.

Indeed, Vancouver’s public health agency advised the local post-secondary institutions in February 2022 that “universities are low-risk settings for COVID-19” and that there is “no material difference in likelihood” between vaccinated and unvaccinated community members of being infected and infectious with the Omicron variant.

The only logical conclusion from this updated science is that COVID-19 vaccination must finally become the personal medical decision it should have been all along. This decision must be based on fully informed consent and an individual risk-benefit assessment, as noted recently by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health with reference to the risk of vaccine-induced heart inflammation.

There is no possible epidemiological, medical, or legal reason to mandate a prophylactic drug that has no apparent impact on others’ health but comes with a risk for the recipient. In other words, in the present state of COVID-19, there is no “common good” that would warrant overwriting long-held ethical standards in medicine and our bodily autonomy enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and global human rights legislation.

The growing imbalance between any remaining (and waning) benefits from the injections for some population groups and the associated risks are further exacerbated by the increasing level of natural immunity in the population. Inexplicably, natural immunity is still not widely accepted as equivalent to vaccine-induced immunity in North America, in sharp contrast to the role of the “recovered” status in many European COVID-19 regulations.

The common-good debate is also at the core of mask mandates and recommendations. Similar to COVID-19 vaccination, we call on our colleagues, campus unions, and administrators to take the harms and adverse side effects of face covering more seriously. Available face coverings have been found to contain carcinogenic substances and seriously inhibit breathing. Canadians living with disabilities were shown to be further excluded from daily routines due to an inability to wear masks. Additionally, the environmental impact of discarded masks is egregious.

Even as mandates have been lifted in many college and university settings, the suggestion that members continue to wear face masks and maintain social distancing undermines our physical and mental health rather than “keep everyone safe.” As human beings, we need to be close and communicate without impediments. We cannot teach or learn in masks. The current recommendations will create tensions, judgements, and further division in post-secondary communities, encouraging particular expectations and “virtue signalling” that are not warranted. We must counter the climate of fear of one another, which has been so destructive.

Clearly, the time has come for our colleagues and post-secondary administrators to understand and accept empirical reality as well as principles of medical ethics. We need to learn to live with the now endemic coronavirus and immediately rescind, rather than pause, the harmful, discriminatory, and scientifically questionable COVID-19 policies on our campuses.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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