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If a worker refuses to get the jab, good luck keeping them away from the office

Yay! COVID-19 is finally retreating. But we’re still a long way from normal. As the owner of a consumer-facing business, you need to ensure workplace safety for customers and coworkers. Should you demand that employees show proof of vaccination before returning to the office?

My body, my choice! blares the placard held high by the maskless protester, his head stuffed with QAnon fairytales and the itemized perils of drinking skim milk. The fact that so many of these crusaders for personal liberties also oppose a woman’s right to choose is a contradiction that probably never occurs to them. (Or if it does, they’re not going to let a little irony ruin their day.) To steal a lick from Walt Whitman, they, um, contain multitudes—this is me, being polite.

Yet does this crowd have a point? Shouldn’t Canadians have jurisdiction over their own bodies? Well, sure. But that right is context-dependent and hardly absolute. You have the right to smoke; you don’t have the right to spark up a Cohiba on a crowded bus. You can choose to go maskless, but not in places where you could be a vector for COVID-19 transmission. See how this works? So let’s be clear, and current: all of us have the right to refuse the COVID vaccines. But ethically speaking, should you expect to be allowed to return to work if you’ve decided to go down this path?

For the employer, it’s not simple. “If you’re requiring somebody to have proof of vaccination in order to come back to work, you’re basically putting constraints on people’s employment conditions,” says bioethicist Anita Ho, an associate professor with UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. “From an ethical perspective, you’d have to have really good evidence to show that you don’t have other ways to protect yourself or your customers.”

When it comes to restricting freedoms to ensure public health, it’s a balancing act. “You have to weigh individual freedom with the severity of the situation,” says Ho, who strongly advises that everyone receive the jab. If the public health impact of a disease isn’t particularly high, there’s no need for drastic measures. In some situations, though, there could be a tipping point. “The higher the risk and harm if people aren’t vaccinated, then the higher the justification to at least encourage, and possibly mandate, vaccination,” Ho says.

In the name of public safety, some far-reaching controls have been enacted elsewhere. In Israel, a COVID vaccination certificate (or “green pass”) is now required before, say, attending a sporting event or eating in a restaurant. (The U.K. is considering a similar scheme.) Although some have framed this as the slippery slope to godless communism or worse, it’s not a departure in kind. “A vaccine passport is not a new thing,” notes Ho, adding that many countries already require international travellers to provide proof of vaccination against tropical diseases like cholera, yellow fever and rubella as a condition of entry.

Denying employment on a similar basis is, however, a classic sticky wicket. Which vaccines would be acceptable? Would the Russian one be OK? If any of the four federally funded vaccines is shown to be less efficacious, would those who had received it be out of luck, and potentially out of work? What about people who are allergic?

At this point, Ho observes, we don’t know how long the vaccines will remain effective; without that information, does a mandatory employee vaccination policy enhance workplace safety? And if mass vaccination compliance leads to herd immunity, she says, then more intrusive measures, like mandatory vaccination, would be unnecessary. Or, more aptly, draconian.

It’s complicated, as things often are. But in pursuing the best possible outcomes for all, it’s important to keep in mind that, quite literally, the cure must not be worse than the disease. In this extraordinary situation, we should strive to do no harm. As best we’re able.