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Professor says public health messages growing stale as COVID-19 pandemic worsens

Last Updated Nov 13, 2020 at 11:18 am PST

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam delivers her opening remarks at the start of a news conference Tuesday April 21, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A sociologist believes no amount of asking nicely is going to convince some people from not breaking COVID-19 rules

Public health messaging on COVID-19 has become stale, sociologist says

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, have we reached peak personal responsibility?

One sociologist says those who are going to buy in, have already gotten on board with the rules and there’s not a chance public health officials will sway those people who continue to ignore pleas to do the right thing.

Amy Kaler, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, says she’s worried about “stale” public health messaging across Canada.

“[Messages] that they need to smarten up and behave better, I think we’re past the point where that is going to produce a lot of returns in terms of decreased infection,” she says.

Whether it’s the importance of sacrificing our social bubbles so kids can stay in school, or asking party goers to stay home for the wellbeing of frontline workers, nothing seems to be getting across to those who continue to flout the rules.

“We can’t go and yell at these people and tell them that, you know, don’t you realize there’s a dangerous virus out there? Because they don’t. If they were susceptible to that kind of information, then they would not be doing what they’re doing.”

Kaler says that’s because for many the virus doesn’t seem real and for a variety of reasons they remain insusceptible to messages about personal responsibility.

With B.C.’s daily case count set to double just 12 days from now, according to the most recent modelling and projections released by the province, there is little time to change the tide of the viral spread and Kaler is pleading with leaders and health officials to change course.

“We’re starting to look more and more like the Midwestern United States than we did, you know, five or six months ago,” says Kaler.

“I mean, what’s happening there, there’s nothing to prevent it from happening here.”


She says she favours a harm-reduction approach that would recognize that people won’t stop acting a specific way. In this case, removing the option to behave that way would be the best approach.

“We’re not about talking about changing hearts and minds or sort of convincing people with, like, moral arguments or anything, and that’s where things like closing bars and restaurants come in,” says Kaler.

She says she’d rather experience “another long, hard lockdown” but it’s a better option than continuing as is, knowing full well the trajectory we are on in terms of viral spread.

However, Kaler believes more social measures need to be taken alongside the tightening of COVID-19 rules, including additional day care supports, sick days and financial safety nets for people facing rent and mortgage payments.

“We have people who go to work when perhaps they’re not feeling well and then or send the kids to school when the kids aren’t feeling well because they can’t afford to miss a few hours and miss a day of work,” she explains.

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“That’s where we need support to be in place that would enable people who need to or who are willing to, to stay home, isolate, keep away from other people to do so,” says Kaler.

“[They] know what the risk is, understand that what they’re doing is risky, but have to do it because they have to eat or they have to pay the rent,” she argues.

She says it’s the government’s job to support people and provide them with the resources to do the right thing, not just tell them about the importance of individual responsibility.

Looking to the U.S. as a comparison isn’t something Canadians have had to do during the first wave of COVID-19. However, as case counts continue to skyrocket, including in B.C., there are fears we could see more than 1,000 cases each day before the end of this month.

It should be a wake-up-call to politicians and health leaders, says Kaler, who adds there’s nothing stopping similar levels of infection from hitting Canadians.