Will death be the great motivator for the vaccine-hesitant?

More than 99 per cent of people dying from COVID in the U.S. and Canada are unvaccinated – will it push doubters to finally accept the shot?

It is said that death is the great equalizer. With COVID it may also be the great teacher, the tutor in a horrific avoidable tragedy.   

For months, governments, commentators and editorials have been about encouraging, nudging, educating people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

But in the face of the Delta variant and refusers adamant about not being vaccinated, the ground is shifting. There’s a growing chorus calling for consequences for those who say no to the jab.

The plague itself, however, may soon provide the reason to change minds. There is yet another motivator for the unvaccinated: certain death. 

More than 99 per cent of people dying from COVID in the U.S. are unvaccinated. The increase in rates of infection, particularly in the southern states, is alarming. So are the low rates of vaccination. 

Daniel Engber, senior editor at the Atlantic, suggests that there may be “only one tragic path forward” south of the border. As deaths increase in these states, and much less in other parts of the country with high levels of inoculation, it may finally push at least some who are recalcitrant to finally accept the shot. 

By contrast, Canada is enjoying a great measure of success in vaccinations. To date, 79.9 per cent of those eligible (or 70.1 per cent of the total population) have had at least one dose and 61.72 per cent (or 54.4 per cent of the total population) have had both. The rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been on a steep downward slope for several months.  

But the prospect of a fourth wave, fuelled by those who are unvaccinated, looms large in some areas of the country. 

In Saskatchewan, experts estimate that it will take at least 80 per cent of the population being fully vaccinated to avoid another surge. Yet only about 59 per cent of the eligible population of the province have had both jabs, and vaccination rates are slowing. 

In Alberta, which is set to lift all COVID restrictions, only 75 per cent of the eligible population has received one dose.

Meanwhile, there are troubling indicators in Ontario, where there’s a faint echo of the grim statistics being seen in the U.S. Last week, the decline in infections plateaued and then began to rise.

For several months after vaccines were available, the push was to make inoculations accessible as soon as possible to all of the willing. And many rolled up their sleeves enthusiastically.  

Along the way, many who were hesitant came around. Some because vaccines were made more accessible. Some because they were incentivized through lotteries and paid time off to get the jab. Some because a trusted advisor, family doctor or spiritual leader listened to their apprehensions and provided the necessary information and reassurance.

Yet we seem to be moving away from coaxing those who refuse to get vaccinated to increasingly direct measures, including taking legal action against those breaching quarantine and vaccine certificates/passports to exclude those not vaccinated. 

A recent analysis by the Economist points to two main factors pushing people to get the shot. One is the pace of vaccinations. The more individuals get the jab, without major negative consequences, the more the doubters change their minds.

The second is a rise in the number of those succumbing to the virus. Taiwan, for example, had a very good track record at keeping the plague at bay. At the same time, there was a significant amount of vaccine hesitancy.

But after a major outbreak that took hundreds of lives, the percentage of doubters plummeted and rates of vaccination rose accordingly. Will dying now be the great motivator?

W.A. Bogart is a distinguished professor of law at the University of Windsor (retired). He is the
author and editor of eight books including Off The Street: Legalizing Drugs.


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