How many more will die before we stop politicizing masks?

Despite record-breaking COVID-19 cases in North America, recommendations on how to celebrate the New Year vary. In Canada, Quebec has a curfew and Ontario has asked people to keep rapid tests to use when symptoms appear, rather than using them for socializing. Indeed, perhaps the most consistent thing about the pandemic as a whole has been the lack of consistency in public health responses. Some variations make sense. As the second largest country in the world, Canadians cannot expect the pandemic to unfold the same from coast to coast. But even taking into account the population density and the number of cases, we have still seen drastically different responses across the country.

The fifth wave brings various answers

Faced with the fifth wave, Quebec not only instituted a curfew, but also moved online schools until at least January 17. Ontario, facing a very similar record daily number of cases, continues with a more or less ‘as usual’ approach and has so far only delayed the opening of schools by two days to allow time distribute N95 masks to staff.

Public health experts recommend the use of K / N95 masks to reduce the transmission of Omicron.

Source: Markus Winkler / Pexels

Some universities are returning to distance learning until at least the end of February, while others still maintain that in-person classes will start by mid-January. Some campuses have made the use of N95 masks mandatory, while the majority have yet to change their mask policies. In other words, the question of masking returns to the fore.

COVID-19 Daily Adaptation Study

In March 2020, I launched an online journal study with my students and colleagues to track Canadians’ responses to the pandemic. The masks were not yet discussed at length and the general advice was to leave the PPE to the nursing staff. As such, we did not include questions on masks behaviors or attitudes.

As more data has come in from around the world regarding the relative effectiveness of various types of masks in reducing the spread of COVID-19, the messages about masks have started to change. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, first recommended the wearing of non-medical masks indoors on April 6, 2020. At that point, we added questions to our study on people’s attitudes and behaviors regarding masks.

Political polarization of masks

What we couldn’t have predicted in March or April 2020 is how politicized the mask-wearing issue would become. In fact, even the John Hopkins pandemic modeling events failed to account for the potential influence of political polarization and leaders avoiding public health. I don’t need to rehash the controversies that have arisen over the masks; suffice it to say that the issue has torn families apart and catalyzed countless protests.

New recommendations on what kind of masks to wear (eg, N95 versus non-medical masks) are now emerging as we enter the fifth wave of the pandemic with a more transmissible variant. What can we learn from the successes and failures of public health messages regarding masks during the first waves of the pandemic?

After adding questions about masks to our study, 1,527 Canadians participated in our 28-day study. Each participant received a daily link at 6 p.m. to tell us about their day, including questions about wearing the mask. All of the data I’m talking about here was collected before mandatory mask warrants were issued in any jurisdiction in Canada, and therefore the behavior reported by people was based on their own risk assessment and not their will. to follow the law.

What predicts mask wearing behavior and attitudes?

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People who are older and have more risk factors for serious complications from COVID-19 were more likely to wear masks.

Source: esrannuur / Pexels

Some of what we learned was not so surprising. For example, those most likely to report frequent mask wear and support for issuance of mask warrants were those most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. Older people, who thought the pandemic was a more or more serious threat, who lived in an urban (vs. rural) area of ​​the country and who had personal risk factors reported the highest frequency of mask wear in the months prior to any mask warrant in Canada.

But, when we looked at support for mask warrants, we started to find more surprising patterns. Specifically, we looked at how patterns of mask mandate support varied before and after May 20, 2020. Why this date? On May 20, 2020, Dr Tam and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a press conference that they would personally wear a mask in public. At first glance, this may seem like a harmless announcement, but it is perhaps one of the many seeds from which the controversies surrounding the COVID-19 mask warrants in Canada were born.

For participants who started the study before May 20, believing the pandemic to be severe was associated with more positive attitudes toward the notion of governments mandating the use of masks in public. After May 20, however, the situation changed so that a wide variety of demographic and personality factors predicted attitudes toward mask mandates. Most notably, having more liberal political views and having a lower level of psychological reactance were both associated with greater support for mask mandates, but only for those participants joining the study after the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s remarks. Dr Tam. In other words, it appears that prior to the May 20 announcements political opinion had very little to do with Canadians’ attitude towards mask mandates, but after May 20 the political division shifted. started to grow.

Perhaps if other political leaders across the country had immediately followed suit with similar messages, mask-wearing would have become a universal and uncontroversial act of goodwill in a collective battle against COVID-19. Canada might have carved out a history of uniquely Canadian unity in the face of the crisis, but instead we have followed in the footsteps of the divided nation in our south.

Sadly, the polarization around mask wearing only increased after the actual warrants emerged, and they continue today, across the continent. In more conservative regions of the United States and Canada, masks wearing frequencies are lower, as are vaccination rates lower.

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What can you do in 2022 to help the world cope with the pandemic?

Source: Towfiqu barbhuiya / Pexels

Will 2022 see the end of the pandemic?

When our article was published, the world had seen 111 million cases of COVID-19 and 2.5 million global citizens had died. Just 8 months later, the number of deaths worldwide has more than doubled to 5.4 million.

Whatever the next round of public health recommendations regarding Wave 5, let’s hope this time the message doesn’t get lost in its association with the messenger. Hopefully the message is delivered clearly by our leaders across the country and by our entire political spectrum. Viruses do not select their hosts based on their political affiliation, so we must do everything possible to help our public health experts get their message across to the public. all Canadians.

As we move into this New Year, let us make a collective resolution to step away from defining the world in terms of “us versus them” and find the shared humanity in each of us. Our ability to make the fifth wave the last wave may depend on our ability to do so.

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