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The pandemic was already polarizing — now vaccines have become partisan as well – CBC.ca

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It was inevitable that the federal government’s handling of COVID-19 vaccines would become political. Politics has shaped public perceptions of the pandemic’s severity since it began.

But now the vaccines themselves are becoming politically polarized, with divisions emerging between those who want them and those who don’t.

Since the spring, polls have shown consistently that one of the major factors associated with how Canadians view the pandemic is how they vote. Supporters of the Liberals and New Democrats have been more likely to report concerns about the public health risks of COVID-19, while Conservative voters have been more likely to eschew precautions and oppose restrictions.

Polling conducted by a number of firms in November — as cases across the country continued to rise — still showed signs of this split between left and right in Canada.

The latest survey by Léger for the Association of Canadian Studies suggests that only 12 per cent of Liberal voters want to ease pandemic restrictions as soon as possible — even if another wave is possible early in the new year — while 31 per cent of Conservative voters say they want governments to ease up.

The poll also found that 52 per cent of Conservative voters are very or somewhat afraid of contracting COVID-19, compared to 66 per cent of New Democratic voters and 74 per cent of Liberal supporters.

A recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) found that between 87 and 89 per cent of Canadians who voted for the Liberals, NDP or Bloc Québécois in last year’s election report regularly wearing masks indoors; 71 per cent of Canadians who voted for the Conservatives reported doing the same.

And Liberal, NDP and Bloc voters were about twice as likely as Conservative supporters to list COVID-19 as one of their top three issues of concern.

When asked how governments should prioritize their responses to the pandemic, Conservatives were about twice as likely as Liberals to tell a recent survey for Abacus Data that there has been “too little emphasis on limiting the impact on jobs, income and the economy” — and more than three times as likely to say there has been “too much emphasis on limiting the health risk.”

We’ve seen proof of these political attitudes in how Canadians voted in October’s provincial elections in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The New Democrats (the main left-of-centre party in both provinces) did significantly better among voters who cast ballots by mail — and avoided crowds by doing so — than among those who voted in person. Right-of-centre parties in both provinces did much better in the in-person voting.

The polarization of immunization

Since attention has turned to vaccines, the Conservatives in Ottawa have focused their attacks on the federal government’s plan to acquire and distribute the vaccines in this country. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has claimed that Canada will be “near the back of the line,” though vaccines are expected to start arriving in early 2021.

But this week’s Léger poll suggests a minority of Canadians share O’Toole’s concern. While the poll suggests 37 per cent of Canadians are worried Canada might not get the vaccine at the same time as the United States and the United Kingdom — where the vaccines are produced — 48 per cent said they are “not that concerned” and feel “a few months won’t make much of a difference.”

A recent Léger poll suggests Conservative voters are more likely than other Canadians to be concerned about a delay in obtaining vaccines — and less likely to want to get vaccinated as soon as possible. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

It’s hard not to see partisanship behind some of this, as the Léger poll suggests Conservative voters are the ones most likely to be concerned about delays — and the ones least likely to say they would take the first vaccine made available to the public.

This is in part because many Canadians harbour doubts about potential COVID-19 vaccines.

A recent Ipsos/Global News poll suggested that 71 per cent of Canadians feel nervous about a vaccine being created and approved so quickly. A similar share of those surveyed said they are concerned about long-term side-effects.

On average, polls conducted by Abacus, ARI and Léger suggest only 34 per cent of Canadians would get immunized as soon as possible, while 41 per cent said they would wait a little before getting the needle. Between 11 and 15 per cent of those polled said they would not get vaccinated at all.

Conservatives more likely to wait or avoid vaccination

There is certainly a level of distrust among Conservative voters specific to the Trudeau government. According to Léger, about half of Conservative voters believe that the current federal government is withholding information about vaccines. Only 15 per cent of Liberal voters feel the same way.

This trust (or lack of it) could have an impact on Canadians’ willingness to get vaccinated. In the ARI, Abacus and Léger surveys, an average of just 27 per cent of Conservative voters said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared to 43 per cent of Liberals and 39 per cent of New Democrats.

Canada has already pre-purchased millions of doses of multiple COVID-19 vaccines, but the government cannot guarantee when Canadians will get them. And some caution it could be months before this country can begin the distribution process. 1:58

An average of 84 per cent of Liberal voters and 79 per cent of New Democrats said they would get vaccinated either right away or eventually, compared to 69 per cent of Conservatives. The number who said they won’t get vaccinated averaged just five per cent of the sample among Liberal supporters and nine per cent among New Democrats, but rises to 19 per cent among Conservative voters.

The potential public health risk of this polarization could be mitigated if the federal government revealed a detailed plan for the acquisition and distribution of vaccines. Statements of support for such a plan from conservative premiers — some of whom have echoed O’Toole’s attacks recently — also could help to reduce this partisan split before vaccine doses start arriving.

Will that happen? The answer might depend on how much partisanship is running through Canadians’ veins right now.

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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