The response to the pandemic has become a political issue.
The public health response to the pandemic required a smart approach that took into account public mistrust and polarization.
Public health is built on public trust. For some reason, the response to the pandemic has become a political issue, with the unfortunate effect of politicizing the public health response to COVID-19. As a result, mistrust of politics has shifted to public health.
How to avoid this transfer of mistrust?
To begin with, a good assessment of the mood of the public. Politicians have seriously underestimated the lack of trust their voting public places in them. They should have expected problems with public acceptance. The public health response to the pandemic required a smart approach that took into account public mistrust and polarization.
Instead, there was too much (in Canada this was mostly from the federal government’s response) top to bottom “We know what’s best and will use the force of law to prevent anything we call disinformation “. It was a failure in a democratic and open country with laws protecting freedom of expression. The public would discuss COVID. There would be disinformation. The way to handle this is not to end conversations, but to provide correct information, to answer questions that people ask in good faith. People needed to understand that the science on COVID evolved as more was learned, and that there would be disagreements and challenges for research and studies. What to question is, in fact, how science progresses.
Instead, we got some extreme and polarizing messages from some of our political leaders. Some 100% demonized those who disagreed with their message. During the first press conferences, we were told that closing the borders was racist. Then, that there was no possible way the virus was due to a lab leak and to talk about it was to endorse conspiracy theories. Then we heard that wearing masks was ridiculous. The messages have evolved but the main message is the same: “Trust me. I know what’s best for you, and if you don’t trust me, it must be because you’re a conspiracy theorist or racist, or denier, or whatever. Trust is not built by demanding it, but by being trustworthy, which is a whole other column.
Then some politicians used the division to shame people for getting vaccinated. Demonizing vaccine hesitants seems to be the “solution”, portray vaccine hesitant people as science deniers. Others report that healthcare workers disproportionately refuse to be vaccinated. Maclean’s recently reported that the average person who is hesitant to get the vaccine is a 42-year-old woman who votes for the Liberals. Whether it’s Premier Horgan’s comment on “young people” or this week’s efforts to make immunization an election issue, neither will encourage confidence or immunization.
This pandemic could have been an opportunity to unite Canadians against a common enemy, no matter what steps each took to combat it. No one wants to be sick. No one wants to kill their grandparent. We all want to be healthy and free. Our politicians should build on this foundation: send the message that our common values, our free expression, free media; the pillars of democracy that made us the envy of the world would work to get us out of this pandemic. The message should have been unity around our common values. It will be up to the voters to send the message to our politicians that encouraging division does not pay.