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Covid misinformation ignites a battle over blood in a Canadian province

Vaccine fears are causing Canadians to refuse blood transfusions while a province executive peddles misinformation

In Canada’s western Alberta province, a land of soaring mountains and long grass prairies, contemporary politicians and a history of fiercely individualist new arrivals — often disgruntled American citizens to the south — have combined to create one of the most ferocious anti-vaccine climates in the Western Hemisphere.

Alberta was the site of many of the mass protests over the summer: “Freedom Convoys” stretched over parts of southern Alberta along the border with the United States, blockaded cross-border commerce and occupied the streets of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Hundreds of truckers traveled from across the country to protest vaccine mandates in front of the parliament building. To many in Canada, the protests highlighted the cultural and ideological differences between the western prairie provinces and the more populated, urban provinces in Canada’s east. 

The Freedom Convoy that shut down the border with the U.S. was full of people from Alberta. The blockades lasted for several weeks as the anti-government protests challenged vaccine mandates and other Covid safety restrictions. Those who joined the demonstrations frequently slipped into extremist far-right narratives and promoted conspiracy theories. 

Conspiracy theorists have latched on to spreading scientific misinformation. Doubts about vaccine efficacy are commonly circulated through social media, and potential Covid cures like ivermectin, which scientific research does not support, are promoted. Agence France-Presse’s fact-checking bureau found a fire hose of false claims online suggesting that more vaccinated people were hospitalized in Canada than those who were unvaccinated — a claim unsupported by data from Health Canada.

In this still-simmering political cauldron, the new premier of Alberta’s government announced that people unvaccinated against Covid confront the most discrimination in the state.

Shortly after taking office last month, Danielle Smith declared at her first press conference that unvaccinated people are the state’s most vulnerable, having already come up with a plan to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act to codify protections for those who allegedly have been discriminated against for being unvaccinated against Covid. (She ultimately backtracked when leaders from groups experiencing discrimination protested her remarks.)

The new premier, the equivalent of a state governor, has previously come under fire for sharing unproven claims about the virus on Twitter during the early days of the pandemic. Smith became the leader of the Wildrose party in 2009. The party is unique to Alberta with a platform that has sought to revamp healthcare delivery with more privatized options and reign in provincial spending, hoping to appeal to populist voters. Her previous position as a radio talk show host allowed her to broadcast views that promoted pseudoscience and cures for Covid frequently touted by former President Donald Trump.

Overall, Canada consistently ranks as having one of the most highly educated populations in the world. Nationally, support for vaccines is high. But while 88% of the Canadian population has received at least one dose, Alberta has the lowest number of doses administered per 100,000 people to date compared to the other prairie provinces.

Alberta is well known for its “western alienation” — a kind of jilted, strained relationship with other parts of Canada. A feeling of limited representation in the federal government and an economic reliance on natural resources has yielded a sense of apartness from the rest of Canada.

This apartness is rooted in Alberta’s history. In the 19th century, many Americans heading west settled in the vast Canadian province, bringing with them a strident individualism and deeply entrenched political populism, rejecting government reach into private lives. The number of Americans arriving in Alberta, mainly from the rural American Midwest, quickly outpaced British settlers and even native-born Canadians.

Whether due to the stress of the pandemic, opportunism from populist politicians or the forces still at work from its settler colonial history, Alberta’s apartness now may be intensifying. 

Doctors in Alberta have warned that it is becoming more common for patients to refuse blood transfusions from Covid-vaccinated donors, and they worry that this could develop into the next form of widespread protest. Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, believes this trend is driven by misinformation, which is causing patients to refuse to consent to blood transfusions if the blood comes from a donor who had received the Covid vaccine. 

Damaging myths surrounding blood purity cost countless human lives during the 20th century, and centering Covid vaccine opposition around the transfusion of blood would be a remarkable new chapter for the vaccine hesitancy movement. 

Anti-vaccine sentiment in parts of western Canada has morphed into fear of bodily contamination. Photo: Justin Ling

In the 20th century, a fear of contaminated blood was a vehicle for anti-Black racism. The false notion that drops of blood could contain racial purity was a widespread belief in the U.S. and swaths of Europe. The Canadian Red Cross oversaw the blood donation process for five decades, from the mid-1940s to the late 1990s. The program, originating in wartime, had a history of racially segregating blood for American and British white soldiers. 

Fear of blood contamination has historically impacted marginalized communities. Earlier this year, after three decades, Canada removed the ban on donated blood from men who have sex with men. The ban came out of longstanding concerns about HIV transmission in the donated blood supply following the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was slowly dialed back as testing requirements became more comprehensive and donation supply demands increased.

Dr. Nathan Lachowsky, a public health professor at the University of Victoria, cited “a variety of screening questions that have excluded specific groups from blood donation, including men who have sex with men, certain Black African communities, people who inject drugs, and sex workers.” He believes that while the screening questions have evolved, “rarely has there been acknowledgment or apology for ways in which the blood system has propagated stigma and discrimination against these groups.”

The general public has questioned the integrity of Canada’s blood donation system in the past. A scandal in the 1990s led to thousands acquiring HIV and hepatitis C through blood transfusions, which prompted investigations into the system. Subsequently, a nonprofit health organization, Canadian Blood Services, took over the processing of blood donations with stringent health protocols. 

“This system failure led to a national inquiry and the current blood donation system we have today in Canada,” said Dr. Lachowsky, which created a sense of distrust. 

Nevertheless, Canada’s public healthcare system, which shielded the country from outsized effects of contracting Covid and minimized vaccine hesitancy, should also minimize an outbreak of fear over “contaminated” vaccinated blood, said Dr. Davinder Sidhu, a transfusion specialist physician from the University of Calgary.

“Based on the Canadian universal healthcare model, there is just a presumption [that] the system will be here to take care of people if they get sick. The fear of significant financial pressures and costs don’t exist like in the U.S. medical healthcare model. And so, people may be more cavalier with their health,” said Dr. Sidhu. 

According to Dr. Sidhu, the requests for directed donations from unvaccinated donor groups is particularly surprising because Canada is known for its safe blood system. “Directed donations are more common in parts of the world where the blood supply is less well tested or deemed dangerous due to other circulating transfusion-transmitted diseases,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Blood Services said in a statement: “Our ultimate priority is the health of the patient. Health Canada has not recommended or imposed any restriction on the use of the approved Covid-19 vaccines and blood donation. This is because the blood of donors who have received non-live vaccines does not pose a risk to patients who receive a blood transfusion.”

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