Dropping Ontario’s mask mandate on March 21 may be going too far, too soon, say Brock University experts, who are concerned with the government’s decision announced Wednesday.
“Most people rely on the message they are getting from the government and if the government is lifting so-called restrictions, it must be because things are OK,” says Christine Daigle, a Philosophy Professor with the Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program. “We know the pandemic is far from over, but for most people, the message they are getting is that things are improving and are going to continue to improve.”
Associate Professor of Immunology Adam MacNeil warns there is risk of doing more harm to the public through encouraging masklessness in indoor public spaces, which will increase virus transmission, without grounding the public in clear guidance around airborne transmission.
“All protective measures need to be assessed in the current context,” says MacNeil, who teaches Infection Control in Brock’s Master of Public Health program. “Our current context is very high community spread and thus lots of virus in circulation relative to previous waves.”
In addition, he says, the current context includes a number of factors: serious risks to children under five years old who remain unvaccinated, most children five and over who are not fully vaccinated, immunocompromised individuals and the high-risk elderly; the new and more highly transmissible subvariant of Omicron (BA.2) that is moving toward dominance in Canada and elsewhere; and increasing understanding of the longer-term consequences of infection in Long COVID.
Wednesday’s announcement shifts responsibility to the individual, but Daigle notes that individuals can only make an informed decision if they are informed, and many may not be following COVID-19 news closely for many reasons.
“What we’re ignoring here is that we live in a collective and that my decision potentially impacts you and others I interact with,” says Daigle, who has been researching human vulnerability.
MacNeil thinks it is too soon to shift focus onto individual choice.
“In my opinion, we’re not at the ‘personal risk assessment’ time yet,” he says. “Infectious disease experts widely agree, Ontario’s move Wednesday is not grounded in science.”
While Daigle is hopeful that people will continue wearing masks, she is concerned about increasing polarization, harassment and peer pressure towards people, especially children, who continue to wear masks.
“I’m hoping that even with this announcement, a good number of people will continue wearing masks because they understand it is a caring gesture.”
Daigle says there has been a failure of communication in the language government leaders and the media have used to talk about the pandemic. Words such as ‘restriction,’ ‘mandate’ and ‘lockdown’ rather than ‘protective measures’ exaggerate hardship and invite resistance.
“This choice of words has had a very profound impact,” says Daigle. “If you call it a mandate or call it a restriction, you are soliciting resistance rather than co-operation.”