COVID-19 communication in NS and the burning political issue that she continues to be
This week in Nova Scotia, Liberal Opposition Leader Iain Rankin said the province’s approach to sharing information about COVID-19 is “a new level of ignorance.”
However, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health said in an interview that the Conservative government is using science to make the best decisions for Nova Scotians.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, the provincial government had addressed the pandemic by sharing information when available.
In addition to implementing some of the toughest measures in the country, former Liberal Prime Ministers Stephen McNeil and Rankin held live daily or weekly COVID-19 briefings. Detailed epidemiological reports were published daily.
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New Progressive Conservative Premier Tim Houston began phasing out restrictions in mid-February, and with that, the frequency of COVID-19 updates also decreased.
By the time most restrictions were lifted on March 21, the province ended regular live updates and soon after epidemiological reporting was reduced to once a week.
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Transparency or alarmism?
Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University, said transparency is what gave people a sense of confidence in the system during the pandemic.
Plus, she said that’s what helped justify the restrictions.
“It gives the government a bit more legitimacy to make the kind of decisions it makes, in terms of closing businesses, closing schools, mandates for masks, certificates for vaccines,” he said. she told Global News.
“It’s almost as if the government has to show its work and show its evidence.”
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Since the restrictions have been lifted, the government no longer needs to present evidence and there is less pressure to share information.
Health Minister Michelle Thompson said the provincial government is happy with how it is communicating COVID-19 and giving Nova Scotians access to the same information as them.
“I believe Nova Scotians have the information they need,” Thompson said, adding that messaging around public health recommendations was consistent across mandates. “I think Nova Scotians of all ages know these very well,” she said.
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In early April, a two-minute video from Houston indicated that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue to rise and people don’t need warrants to tell them how to be safe.
Rankin went on to criticize the premier for his approach to information sharing. He commented on the April 6 video saying, “If the prime minister has time to do a video, he should have time to hold a COVID briefing.”
A month later, calls from Rankin for briefings and daily updates continue.
“Dr. Strang has repeatedly said ‘COVID is still with us,’ but the government of Houston is making it very difficult for Nova Scotians to hear this message,” read a statement Tuesday from the liberals.
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The Opposition said a virtual media availability with Chief Medical Officer Dr Robert Strang held last week – after the release of the weekly COVID-19 report – should have been public.
“We have seen a disturbing trend of data erosion from this government, but preventing people from watching the weekly COVID briefing is a new level of ignorance,” Rankin said in the statement.
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Bedford Basin Liberal MP Kelly Regan agrees.
“For the government of Houston, public health is no longer public,” Regan said in an interview Wednesday.
“This Premier says he trusts Nova Scotians to do the right thing. It would be nice if he trusted them enough to give them the information so they could do the right thing.
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Thompson said while live briefings are important, they have a time and a place.
Viewership of COVID-19 briefings has declined over the past eight months.
Facebook analytics provided by the province show that a September 14, 2021 briefing reached 263.6 thousand users, while one on April 14, 2022, only reached 22.9 thousand users.
“I want to acknowledge, however, that there are people who are still very scared of COVID,” Thompson said, adding that she wants to make sure the information available on the provincial website and its weekly reports are up to date. the same information used in the manufacturing decision.
As COVID-19 changes, so does communication
Analyst Turnbull said the strategy for communicating COVID-19 to the public is political, but not “necessarily a highly partisan decision”.
She added that the pandemic has changed the way the Liberal Party approaches communication with the public. Either way, the pandemic was the first crisis of its kind for the province.
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When COVID-19 started in 2020, the province’s Liberal government at the time was led by Stephen McNeil.
“I don’t think anyone has ever accused Stephen McNeil of oversharing,” Turnbull said. “On the contrary, his government had a reputation for not being sufficiently transparent and open, wrongly.”
But for months, he gave Nova Scotians regular, sometimes daily, live briefings on the new epidemiology with Dr. Strang at his side.
Turnbull said Nova Scotia stood out at the time for complying with public health advice on COVID-19 and was an example of managing the virus.
When Rankin took over at the helm in early 2021, he continued the transparent approach, holding live briefings and providing regular updates. His briefings on COVID-19 also often involved ministers who explained how COVID-19 fits into their ministry’s decision-making process.
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With Houston’s election, the COVID-19 approach has changed.
But, Turnbull said, so does the virus.
“But even in provinces where the government has remained the same, the reaction to how to handle COVID-19 in a post-vaccine world has changed again,” she said.
“I don’t think we can totally take the goal of ‘this is a politically different response.’ I think even if we still had Premier McNeil, his approach would have changed because the nature of the situation has changed.
Minister Thompson echoed this.
“It’s a very different time than the pandemic, and it doesn’t matter which government is in,” she said.
Thompson said the Conservatives were “following the science” when it came to making decisions not only on mandates but also on communications strategy.
“I think we all rose to the occasion and did our best and with the information we have.”
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According to Liberal MP Regan, if the Liberals were still in power, they “would have a different approach to communication”.
“Our approach has always been to be open and honest with Nova Scotians and let them know what’s going on.
“Most people don’t understand that we have thousands of cases in our province right now and almost 75 people have died from COVID in the past few weeks,” she said. “The management of COVID – which must be above and beyond politics.”
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However, criticizing Houston’s approach is the job of the liberal opposition, Turnbull says.
“They are absolutely trying to score political points.”
Openly expressing the lack of transparency could be a way to undermine Houston’s credibility, she notes.
“It’s typical that they try to tell people, ‘Look, Tim Houston isn’t really telling you everything you should know,'” she said.
“There’s no election around the corner here, and Houston’s approval ratings are pretty high.”
According to Turnbull, “this is just normal politics”.
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