Opinion: Should politicians be first to get vaccine shot?

Which Canadian politician should be first to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

It won’t be Justin Trudeau. While the prime minister was the first political leader in this country to have the virus hit him at home – literally – Trudeau is not expected to be a trailblazer at the next stage of pandemic management.

Trudeau said recently that he would “listen to the experts” on where he stands in the vaccine queue, and the National Advisory Committee on immunization has already decided that political leaders are not a priority group for getting the shot.

But as the vaccine starts becoming more widely distributed in the early months of 2021, political leaders all over Canada and the world will have to carefully choose their moments to roll up their own sleeves.

Too soon and they stand to be accused of privileged queue-jumping. Too late and they’ll be charged with feeding vaccine hesitancy.

And what if there is a federal election next spring? Will it become a job requirement – like bilingualism, say – for would-be prime ministers to be vaccinated before wading into the fray of a campaign?

This is a potentially fraught discussion for politicians over the next few months. Getting a COVID-19 vaccination is not the same as wearing a mask or conducting virtual meetings, practices by which political types in this country – most of them, anyway – have been trying to lead by example.

It’s called “modelling behaviour.” Trudeau indulged in quite a bit of it in the first months of the pandemic, continuing to work from home even after his wife had recovered from her early bout with COVID-19.

Though some of Trudeau’s critics accused him of “hiding” at Rideau Cottage, the idea was to show that if the leader of a G7 country could work in isolation from the office, so could many Canadians.

Premier Doug Ford, a committed populist, is not likely to put himself out at the head of any lineup for vaccines either. Ford’s form of modelling behaviour in the early stage of the pandemic, many will recall, was to hold off on getting a haircut until everyone in Ontario could get one.

As long as vaccines are in limited supply, politicians are going to be ultracautious about any suggestion that they’re using their positions to secure immunity before their own citizens.

There are, in fact, really only two good reasons for a politician to get a vaccination ahead of non-elected citizens.

One would be the argument that their job puts them in the front lines of potential spread or infection, in cases such as a national election campaign or work-related travel.

The other reason for sidling up to the front would be the case for leading by example – trying to quell fears about vaccinations by publicly exhibiting willingness to take the risk.

But which vaccine doubters are going to be reassured by seeing a politician getting a jab in the arm? If advice from public heath officials doesn’t hold much water with the reluctant or cynical, it’s doubtful that political persuasion would work.

Canada’s chief public health officer has said that age is so far the prime criterion in sorting the population into vaccination priority groups.

By that measure, Trudeau, who turns 49 this month, would be ahead of Conservative leader Erin OíToole (47), NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (41) and Green party Leader Annamie Paul (48). Bloc QuÈbÈcois Leader Yves-FranÁois Blanchet, at 55, would be ahead of all of them in the oldest-first vaccination queue.

As for the premiers, the leaders in Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories are all in their 60s. Ford, who just turned 56, is in the middle of the queue, while Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, both in their 40s, would be the last premiers to be vaccinated if age is the main criterion.

One other good reason for a politician to get vaccinated ahead of others would be personal health considerations.

Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister in charge of intergovernmental relations, fits that bill. Last year, LeBlanc showed up wearing a mask when he was sworn into Trudeau’s post-election cabinet. It wasn’t COVID-19 – LeBlanc had just emerged from 50-plus days of isolation after a stem-cell transplant to treat cancer.

In an interview last weekend, LeBlanc said he had asked his doctor about when to get vaccinated and was advised he was immune-compromised. That will get him on a priority list for vaccination at some point.

So the first Canadian politician to get a shot in the arm will not be Trudeau, but it might be his friend since childhood – not for any symbolic or public relations purpose, but for the sake of LeBlanc’s own health. Which isn’t a bad example.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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