This week, Saskatchewan recorded its highest jump in COVID-19 cases and the 16th death due to complications from the virus.
Days earlier, protesters were in front of the provincial legislature clamouring against the use of masks — in a province where no government body has mandated their use — and spreading conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus.
“This is no more than the seasonal flu and we have been scared to death,” Martine Carlina said.
Carlina was one of roughly a dozen gathered on Sunday in Regina, a small part of a larger movement taking place across the country — a movement whose message defies science and the cries for caution from public health officials.
Protesters at March to Unmask events in Vancouver told Global News wearing a mask causes cancer, while others insisted information about masks coming from the media and health officials was part of a global conspiracy to create a world government funded by Bill Gates.
In Calgary anti-mask protester Shelley Klumpp claimed a mask would deplete her oxygen and noted that “when people are wearing a mask your immune system gets suppressed.”
Carlina espoused similar beliefs noting that people need to build their immunity naturally, even saying people should be hugging rather than wearing masks.
Experts say masks do not inhibit breathing, nor does research support the idea that they weaken your immune system.
Although these ideas may seem imprudent to some, experts caution there’s a danger to this kind of rhetoric.
Agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the United Nations have talked about how the lack of good information is a major geopolitical risk, said Alec Couros, a professor of information and technology at the University of Regina.
“These obvious falsities, these obvious fake news stories, are allowed to spread in these spaces without any caption or without any descriptor that this is probably not real. So you get people thinking that it’s OK not to wear a mask,” Couros said.
Couros said these types of views often begin in niche online communities.
“Once you get into that space, where there’s a critical mass of people who are sharing the same things, you start to think that the world is like that … that you’re not so odd.”
As these online communities grow, their users become vehicles for the spread of misinformation. Some political actors will come in with technical knowledge to mobilize people, Couros explained.
Though Facebook comments, tweets or even misleading memes may not appear to be a threat worth taking seriously, psychologists argue that the danger posed by the misinformation is greater than it may first appear.
“A single prior exposure to fake news headline — a completely made-up thing — if you read it before, just one exposure later on when you see it, you’re more likely to believe it. That’s even if you don’t remember having seen it before; it’s even true if it’s something that’s inconsistent with your ideology,” said Gordon Pennycook, a behavioural science professor at the University of Regina.
Pennycook says that psychological preconception can be particularly troubling when paired with people inclined to believe in conspiracy theories.
“One thing that you’ll notice is that people who think (COVID-19) is a hoax, and who are not worrying about it, are far more confident about their opinion than people who are worried about it and that are actually following what scientists are saying,” Pennycock said.
“What that means, especially in the context of COVID-19, is a single person who could transmit (the virus) and is doing the wrong thing could pass it along to lots of people.”
That’s an assertion Dr. Anne Huang agrees with. A former deputy medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Health Canada, Huang bristled at protesters’ assertions that COVID-19 was no more than the common flu.
“It’s important to recognize that quite a few of the working-age, otherwise healthy people who recover (from COVID-19) actually have difficulty concentrating, cannot resume their regular work, and many of them have lingering effects in terms of shortness of breath, despite negative (polymerase chain reaction) test for the wires,” Huang said.
“The more people who oppose to adopting effective intervention of reducing COVID-19 transmission, the faster and the more new COVID-19 cases Saskatchewan will be at risk for,” she continued.
Huang argues that she’d like to see Saskatchewan do a better job with its messaging, particularly when it comes to masks.
“I would really like to see Saskatchewan move forward at this time. Either through mandating or through a drastic increase in public education about the need to wear a face mask,” ” Huang said.
“It’s up to us to decide whether we want to wait for the outbreak to occur before we act, or if we want to take preventive measures right now.”
Saskatchewan’s current chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, recommends masks be worn indoors when keeping a safe distance of two metres is not possible.
He says come the fall, as people presumably spend less time outdoors, masking will keep the province open.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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