The ethics of Manitoba’s targeted restrictions
Ethicist explains restrictions are ethically necessary under Canada’s charter

The Manitoba government announced new COVID-19 restrictions on Oct. 5 that specifically target those that have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.


The restrictions limit indoor private gatherings to guests from one other household whenever an unvaccinated person who is eligible to receive the vaccine is present. This includes unvaccinated people living in the household.


Similar restrictions exist for private outdoor gatherings, indoor public gatherings and faith-based gatherings. Philosophy professor Arthur Schafer — founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the U of M — observed some of the opposition to instating restrictions targeting the unvaccinated claims it creates a two-tier society and that the restrictions are discriminatory.


“I don’t find that a plausible argument because the distinction [is that] the people who are targeted by these restrictions chose not to be vaccinated,” said Schafer.


Schafer said under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are allowed to live their lives according to their own values and preferences without coercive interference of others. However, there are instances where restrictions are reasonably necessary.


To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, “Your freedom to wave your fist around in the air stops when it gets in the vicinity of my nose,” Schafer said.


“You don’t have the liberty to act in such a way as to endanger other people’s liberty.”


When it comes to targeted restrictions, Schafer explained, the safety benefits must outweigh the harm of the restrictions.


“What ethicists say, is that if your actions are likely to cause serious harm to others or society […] and if it’s necessary in order to protect others and protect society to restrict [your] liberties […] and if the good it’s likely to produce outweighs the harm, then the restriction is legally justifiable and ethicists would say morally justifiable,” Schafer said.


Schafer believes anyone who challenges pandemic restrictions in court will be met with the claim that the restrictions are necessary and justifiable in a free and democratic society. Schafer assumes the restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated are the minimum required.


“I think it’s right, reasonably, to accommodate people who are unvaccinated,” he noted.


“But the special restrictions that are targeted at the unvaccinated aren’t unfair if they’re reasonably necessary to protect others.”


Schafer drew a distinction between excluding people on the basis of vaccination status and exclusions that warrant legitimate ethical concern.


“If someone is excluded from a gym because of their race or their religion or their age or their ethnicity, that’s arbitrary and unfair,” he stated.


“If they’re excluded from the gym […] on the grounds that they pose a health danger to the other fully vaccinated people who are attending or, more importantly, if they pose a danger to the sustainability to our health-care system with potentially dire consequences, then it doesn’t pass as a regulation that restricts access and thereby minimize the effects of the pandemic on society would be reasonable.”