Pandemic vs Individual Rights

March, 2022

What you should know about your rights during the pandemic

The number of patrons beating a path to the door of Healthy Choice Pharmacy on McKenney Avenue to get a COVID 19 vaccine varies from day to day. Occasionally, the shop sees lineups, other times it’s little more than a trickle of folks waiting for a jab. But the store also has customers who have no intentions of getting a shot, preferring to shop and grumble over the government directives to mitigate the pandemic from masks and social distancing to quarantines and, yes, vaccines.

“We still see people who are struggling with accepting the idea of getting vaccinated, and even cases of people who already had COVID and had a hell of a time recovering from it and are still hesitant to get the vaccine. Their reasons for saying no are between fear of side effects and personal freedom issues.”

Enas Abougalalah, the store’s pharmacist

Abougalalah said that those nay-sayers are a considerable minority, a segment that’s been relatively silent in St. Albert compared to noisier resistors in cities like Edmonton and Calgary, ground-zero turf for anti-lockdown rallies and campaigns deploring “vaccine passports.” But St. Albert City Councillor Sheena Hughes, a constant opponent to government regulations implemented towards flattening the COVID 19 curve, thinks those measures are creating a rift in the municipality she serves. 

“Everything that’s been done by the higher levels of government has been quite obvious,” said Hughes who publicly refused to reveal her vaccination status in October. “Continuing to disregard privacy laws encourages a new standard which is that medical privacy laws shouldn’t exist because of the political nature of the day only increases divisiveness.”

Public Scrutiny

It’s not the first time she’s made waves over the issue. During lockdown in January, Hughes found herself under public scrutiny when she vacationed in Mexico, defying a federally-imposed travel advisory and prompting a local citizen to issue a formal complaint. That didn’t stop her from winning a third term after a civic election in October and with four-more years in office, she’s not likely to compromise her stance.

“Do I deal with what is politically correct at the time at the expense of political freedom in the future?” she said. “Those who give up freedom for the idea of charity in the end will have neither.”

Hughes and other figures opposing anti-COVID 19 directives often cite the Constitution, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which support freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association. But as constitution lawyer Sujit Chaudhry wrote in his 2020 report COVID 19 and the Canadian Constitution, “all Charter infringements can potentially be justified under [Section One] of the Charter’s limitation clause.” In short, individual rights aren’t sacred, but part of a balance with society interests that warrant limits to be imposed on guaranteed rights and freedoms.

Chaudhry also noted that when it came to public safety, “The potentially fatal nature of COVID-19 engages [Section Seven] of the Charter, which protects the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” 

High-profile Trial

The Charter was the main focus in a high-profile trial involving Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church, roughly 30 km southwest of St. Albert. When Alberta Health Services locked down his church in April, 2020 after Coates refused to enforce masking and social distancing during sermons, the pastor played the religious freedom card to state his case. In June, the court determined otherwise, stating that those freedoms were still under rule of law.

However, that verdict doesn’t settle the ongoing tug-of-war between personal rights and health-based social limitations. St. Albert-based criminal defence lawyer David Lloyd argues that the judicial system will have to deal with several more cases before any clarity surfaces in this ongoing argument.

“It doesn’t come up often enough for there to be a single flow of judicial interpretation and whatever precedents there are will be from a long time ago.”

David Lloyd, St.Albert defence lawyer

“People with complaints are going to argue that society has changed, so it will be up to the courts a lot of the time. Some courts may decide that legislation is invalid because it violates Canadian constitutional rights, at which time it will probably be appealed so we’re going to start seeing a whole lot of growing judicial interpretations going on here.”

Novel Events

A statement released by the Alberta Human Rights Commission in October echoed Lloyd’s perspective. “It is important to remember that the current COVID-19 pandemic, and government public health requirements are novel events,” said the report. “While human rights legislation in Alberta and elsewhere are designed to prevent discrimination on certain grounds, such as disability and religious beliefs, the interpretation and application of human rights laws in the present circumstances of a public health emergency is evolving.”

If lockdowns during a pandemic have lawyers working overtime, issues surrounding vaccinations will likely have them toiling around the clock. Receiving the jab isn’t mandatory for starters, but rejecting the needle opens up yet another consequential can of worms. In St. Albert, unless unvaccinated folks produce a vaccination exemption letter from a physician or present a document showing a negative result from a privately-paid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID 19 test, they won’t be allowed into such facilities as the Arden Theatre or the Jarome Iginla Arena. Everyone else with QR-coded vaccination papers will be granted entry.

But in other areas such as employment, Lloyd said that some people will have a hard time navigating a workplace environment that adopts similar vaccination procedures. “It’s very thorny and it’s going to come down to each individual’s case if they feel that there is a risk that their employer may actually terminate them,” he said. “It’s probably something they want to find out before giving an answer. It’s kind of a grey area right now.”

Mixed Reactions

Split opinions over COVID-19 measures aren’t likely to provide any clarity in this grey landscape of what Hughes says is a “difficult topic.” And while she hasn’t had to field many calls from citizens over the issue, reactions she’s received are mixed. “People have been very passionate about their point of view, which of course increases divisiveness,” she said. “Their messages have been very clear on both sides.”

Divisiveness and the effect of government measures on St. Albert aside, the city is doing better than most Alberta municipalities. Roughly 92 percent of the city has received at least one COVID 19 vaccine, slightly higher than the provincial average of 89.2 percent as of mid-November. The statistic is also well above the 70 percent benchmark set in October by the World Health Organization, a figure it determined would help achieve herd immunity. 

So far, St. Albert’s schools are relatively safe with only one outbreak reported at École Marie Poburan, compared to 20 that took place in Edmonton’s primary education system since the pandemic began early in 2020. Tragically, less than 50 St. Albertans have died from infection, a fraction of the overall Edmonton Zone death toll that has surpassed 1,300 since the pandemic began.

Times of Crisis

“The thing is that as political leaders, your test for whether or not you believe in freedom is not done in times of good, but in times of crisis. If you do not support freedom and protect privacy laws, when they’re under a test, then you do not support them at all.”

Sheena Hughes, St.Albert City Councillor

Meanwhile, back on McKenney Avenue, Abougalalah and those dropping in for a jab view those medical directives as more of a way to stay healthy during a pandemic as opposed to possibly losing their personal liberties. “The majority of people understand all that so far,” she said. “They know that these measures help us avoid big outbreaks.” t8n

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