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Quebec has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the Covid-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons, as a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms the province.
Premier François Legault announced the new “contribution” for the unvaccinated on Tuesday, as the province reported 62 new deaths, bringing the total number of people killed by Covid-19 in the province to 12,028 – the most in Canada.
“A health contribution will be charged to all adults that don’t want to get vaccinated. We are there now,” he said. “Those who refuse to get the shot bring a financial burden to hospital staff and Quebecers. The 10% of the population can’t burden the 90%.”
The move follows the abrupt resignation of a senior health official in the province, amid mounting anger over new lockdown measures, hospitals at capacity and the slow rollout of vaccine boosters.
Quebec made headlines last week when it announced that customers in cannabis shops and liquor stores would need proof of vaccination, leading to a surge in new bookings.
But while other provinces have accelerated the rollout of booster shots to fight the contagious Omicron variant, Quebec has only recently opened access to residents 40 years of age and above. In Ontario, residents over 18 have been able to access the booster since mid-December.
News of the tax, the first of its kind in the country, comes less than a day after the province’s public health director tendered his resignation. Dr Horacio Arruda served in the role for 12 years and was reappointed to another three-year term in June 2020, but has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks.
“Recent comments about the credibility of our opinions and our scientific rigour are undoubtedly causing some erosion of public support,” wrote Arruda in his resignation.
Arruda faced particular condemnation for allowing care home staff to move between sites during the first wave of the pandemic. That decision played a key role in helping the virus spread unchecked and contributed to more than 4,000 deaths – many of them among seniors.
Most recently, Arruda was faulted for his dismissal of the benefits of N95 masks, saying they were not necessary for teachers or healthcare workers. Quebec’s worker safety board disagreed and recently ordered healthcare workers be provided with the more effective masks.
As the Omicron variant sweeps across the province, prompting new lockdown measures and a government-ordered curfew – the only one in the country – Quebecers have been forced to reckon with the fact that their province appears to once again be the among the worst-hit regions of the country.
“I’m not going to mince words: things are bad right now when it comes to hospitalizations,” said Dr Donald Vinh an infectious disease specialist at McGill University’s health centre. “Every time there’s a ceiling, in terms of hospital capacity, the hospitalization rate breaks through that ceiling.”
The province’s health minister estimated last week that at least 20,000 healthcare workers due to Covid-19 infections 50,000 are on leave for burnout.
Quebec’s timing during the pandemic has often been unlucky: the first wave hit as families travelled during a school break, bringing home the virus when they returned. But more than two years later, the province still struggles in executing its plan to fight the virus.
It eschewed access to rapid tests and has since cut off access to PCR tests due to overwhelming demand. On Tuesday, 600,000 boxes of rapid tests are set to be distributed to Quebec amid growing frustration from residents that the tools needed to combat the pandemic are unavailable.
The government has sent mixed messages by imposing a curfew – but also slowly rolling out booster vaccines, said Vinh.
Hospital intakes keep rising and there is little indication the province has reached its peak. Despite early hopes Quebec might experience a similar rapid rise and drop to South Africa, Vinh calls those hopes “foolishly naive” and that a new approach is needed.
“The virus is going to continue to propagate here until we get it under control,” he said. “And wishful thinking isn’t how we’re going to fight it.”