(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Author LadyCamera; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
The truckers’ convoy has once again brought to surface the false claim that vaccines are mandatory for students at public schools. It is especially painful to see prominent journalists peddling this blatant falsehood as fact.
One of my pet peeves about public debate in Canada is that once a factually false statement gets inserted in these debates, it never goes away – regardless of how many times, and how conclusively, it gets disproved.
It was therefore in the nature of things that as the truckers’ convoy reached Canada to (mainly) protest the vaccination mandate for them to enter Canada from the US, the patently false claim that several vaccines are mandatory for children to attend public schools would resurface.
It is one thing for politicians and their partisans to engage in such behaviour. But when I see journalists – including those who have been around in that profession for a very long time – keep repeating the falsehood about ‘mandatory’ vaccination at public schools, I get especially disturbed. These are the people whose job it is to inform the public about facts. Given that function, they are supposed to know, or inform themselves of, the pertinent facts around any issue before offering them for public consumption.
Specifically in this case, I came across the following tweet from the CTV journalist (and formerly of the CBC) Evan Solomon:
“At the protest and spoke to 2 nice young guys who drove from Hamilton to “save our country”. They said mandatory vaccines violate their charter rights. I asked if the vaccines they were required to get to go to public school were also a violation and they said this is “different”.” (Emphasis added)
Simply put, Mr. Solomon’s question to these young men was based on a wrong premise; vaccines aren’t required to go to public schools. Speaking of Ontario, exemptions from vaccines are available on medical grounds (see this link for the applicable form) as well as religious beliefs and reasons of conscience (see this link for the form).
We have been having discussions about Covid vaccination for school children since last summer, i.e., about 6 months. For such a prominent & senior journalist as Mr. Solomon to pose a question as if these exemptions don’t exist (especially at this stage, in light of the discussions over the last few months) is, in my personal view, deliberate, dishonest and malicious. So I quote-tweeted him saying exactly that. I also posted a reply under Mr. Solomon’s tweet, pointing out that these exemptions exist.
This, of course, brought responses along familiar lines. I ended up making the same points that I had made on the subject last year.
THE RIGHT TO KNOW
The most egregious response was a quote-tweet of my reply to Mr. Solomon, where someone said (after a few angry emojis):
“Oh wow, now we have an immigrant telling us what the rules are… even if the rules don’t apply!”
We need not spend time discussing this ridiculous statement.
THE NUMBERS GAME
Another person countered that while exemptions do exist for school children, the number of cases where any exemption is claimed is low – so the comparison is not apt.
However, my point was that these exemptions exist and are available to anyone who wants to avail of them. Therefore, my assessment of Mr. Solomons’ question still stands.
Beyond that, deciding where we stand on a principle depending on how many people opt to benefit from the exemption cannot be a guide to policy.
Elsewhere, we usually contend that even one person being put to difficulty is one too many. If we were to be consistent, then even one person opting to avail the exemption for their children would suffice to justify the policy of exemption. I would go so far as to say that even if no one seeks to avail the exemption, its existence would be justified, so as to keep the option open.
AT THE ALTAR
Of course, the mere mention of religious beliefs serves as a red flag to many Canadians (this is more pronounced on the Left side of the political spectrum – if one goes by the traditional Left v/s Right classification). Curiously, their derision for religion is reserved for Christianity; when it comes to other religions, they walk on eggshells.
When the discussion is about religion in general, the dismissive attitude and comments / responses are based on the unspoken assumption that we are talking about Christianity. It is fashionable in some quarters to hold a negative view for everything that Christianity represents while AT THE SAME TIME treating other religions as unassailably divine and beyond criticism. So when someone says that exemptions from vaccination on religious grounds are based on obsolete thinking, they are probably thinking of the history of Christianity, and how people have struggled to reconcile its tenets with new developments in science.
Other religions get folded into this debate when the person claims that all religions have come out in support of the Covid vaccines. I haven’t seen much proof to corroborate this claim, but even if exists, the reality remains that many religions lack the kind of hierarchical structure that we see in, say, Catholicism. So establishing one rule for all the adherents of that religion (and its various sects) is fraught.
As one may expect, someone brought this up with me, and asked me to produce religious texts that prohibit vaccines. This is, of course, impossible; all the religious texts were written centuries ago (or even millennia ago) when even the idea of a vaccine did not exist. Therefore, any religious guidance on the matter must be gleaned via interpretation. (Here I must point out that even deciding on which text to select for interpretation so as to derive guidance on vaccines is a matter of knowledge and choice).
It was therefore with some trepidation that I decided to look for any text in Hinduism that can help me find out what it says on this matter. Another major difficulty is that Hindu religious literature is impossibly vast, and my knowledge of it doesn’t begin to scratch its surface.
More out of familiarity than expertise, the text that came to my mind was the following:
“Shareermaadyam khalu dharma saadhanam”
(Body is truly the first instrument in carrying out one’s dharma)
Here, I must mention that this text is not from any religious scripture, but rather a piece of fiction (titled ‘Kumaarsambhava’) by an author named Kaalidaas. His place in Sanskrit literature is unparalleled; we may think of him as the Shakespeare of Sanskrit literature. His dramas are filled with ideas that can be treated with as much respect as any religious text. This particular sentence is still in common use in India, across the divides of various regional languages (which are descended from Sanskrit).
An additional point is that major works of Sanskrit literature carry the same weight for Hindus as the religious scriptures do.
The word ‘dharma’ is usually translated as ‘religion’, but actually it is a much wider term. There are so many variations and nuances within the term that explaining fully its true meaning would require me to write a separate article. For the present purpose, it will suffice to translate it as ‘a set of deliverables that varies depending on circumstances, time, relationships and the capacity in which one is participating in this world’.
Unlike religion, therefore, dharma is not fixed or immutable.
My focus here is on the part where it says that the needs of the body are of paramount importance. Without a capable body, one’s ability to discharge one’s dharma gets impaired.
My dharma (set of deliverables) is to myself, my family, my neighbors and my society. There are times when the requirements of my dharma to various parties are in conflict with each other, This is exactly where we are at in relation to the debate on Covid vaccinations & measures:
- People are told that they can protect others by getting vaccinates, and
- People know / apprehend that getting vaccinated may affect their own health adversely. Their apprehension may stem from the fact that (a) this is a completely new type of vaccine, and/or (b) there is concerted push (often accompanied by punitive measures) by the governments and enthusiastically supported by most of the media to ensure 100% vaccination rate.
Depending on where an individual perceives their trade-off between the two is, they may choose to get vaccinated or not by relying on the same piece of advice. In other words, their decision would depend on their personal scenario. Here are two such scenarios:
- If I get sick as a result of adverse reaction to the vaccine, I won’t be able to provide for my family,
- I am home bound, so my remaining unvaccinated doesn’t affect me. Therefore, it is not worth the risk of a potential adverse effect that the vaccine may have on me.
Broadly speaking, once we accept that ‘religious belief’ is not a monolith but rather an intricate maze of possibilities and variations, it becomes difficult to contend that adherents of one religion are obligated to behave in an identical manner.
Obviously, it is possible for someone to contend that the whole discussion above is pointless because my source text is not from a religious source. However, the reality is that when it comes to understanding their dharma, Hindus consider – and have considered for centuries – these texts to have the same weight as any ‘religious’ text. Does their acceptance of a ‘non-religious’ text as religiously binding count? I think it does.
Beyond that, though, over at Twitter a Muslim friend told me that one injunction in Islam is that we should not ‘alter Allah’s creation’. I am of course not even remotely qualified to interpret this, but if we agree that an effort to understand what this means is allowed to us, then it seems clear that a conventional vaccine (using a weakened form of the virus) would not ‘alter Allah’s creation’, whereas a specially concocted mRNA vaccine would.
But the key issue here is not the alteration, but rather the decision by many Muslims to get the mRNA vaccine nonetheless. Their choice to do so does not invalidate another Muslim’s right to abide by the injunction. If anyone were to choose to not get the mRNA vaccine, who is anybody else to tell them that their belief isn’t valid?
The insistence that a religious belief should be commonly shared by all adherents and enjoy the blessing of the religious authorities is also refuted by legal precedent; in the case of Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, the Supreme Court held that “the practice or belief in question need not be required by official religious dogma nor need it be in conformity with the position of religious officials”. In a nutshell, this verdict reaffirms the individual’s right to determine their religious beliefs for themselves – no one can tell them what their belief on a particular matter needs to be.
ROUNDING THE CIRCLE
As I mentioned, the above points result as offshoots of the main debate (every time we have it) about whether exemptions to vaccination currently exist for children in public schools or not. They most certainly do, and the more time we spend discussing these offshoots, the longer the misinformation lingers that those vaccines are mandatory.
In the entire pantheon of Canadian luminaries, is there anyone who can settle this issue once and for ever?