Albertans who still aren’t following COVID-19 guidelines are not likely to change their ways, according to one sociologist.
Dr. Amy Kaler, assistant chair at the University of Alberta’s sociology department, believes officials need to change the environments we all live in rather than rely on citizens to slow the novel coronavirus’ spread.
“Telling people to ‘smarten up’ has been effective nowhere.”
Until Thursday, much of Alberta’s recent messaging around limiting the ever-growing number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions has put the onus on Albertans to smarten up and follow health measures.
On Thursday, however, new restrictions were added in the fitness and hospitality sectors, and for the next two weeks, group fitness activities are prohibited and a curfew has been imposed on restaurants and bars, ending alcohol service at 10 p.m. and closing entirely by 11 p.m.
Premier Jason Kenney said the restrictions were imposed as the “increase in cases is undermining our ability to deliver health services, particularly in Calgary and Edmonton.”
“We think it’s necessary at this time to bring in limited, focused, targeted measures that reduce opportunities for viral spread without imposing significant, broader negative impacts on our society – on lives and livelihoods,” he said.
Kaler said the province has reached a saturation point when it comes to public health messaging, and repeating the same warnings and advice isn’t going to result in more people adopting the measures if they already don’t believe they’re necessary.
In an open letter to Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Kaler said Alberta is “past peak personal responsibility,” and she doesn’t “think there are gains to be made in terms of behaviour change by telling the general public to smarten up and listen to advice.”
She said there are two types of people who are adamant against following the guidelines: those who don’t understand the severity of the situation until they have a personal connection to the pandemic, and people who simply don’t believe it’s real.
“There are also people who have, for a whole range of other reasons, something invested in the idea of thinking that there is no virus or that the virus isn’t that bad,” Kaler said.
“People that are kind of adamant that this is not something that they have to concern themselves with, I’m not sure whether a sort of ‘hearts and minds’ approach of trying to teach people or trying to reach people is really worth pursuing much beyond this point.”
She said the consequences of the province’s more hands-off approach are already being seen with the sharp increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
Kaler — who’s done extensive research on the social and political impacts of infectious diseases, like HIV AIDS — said stricter health measures would be more successful at limiting spread and it’s impossible to know if short, targeted restrictions will be effective.
“Public health teaches us this: that if health prevention measures are effective, people will always see them as overreaching,” she said.
“If you shut down other places where people gather, you’ve achieved harm reduction, you’re not depending on individual responsibility and individual choices.”
Kenney said Thursday the province wouldn’t shy away from tightening restrictions or introducing penalties if people don’t fall in line and do their part.
“We believed from the very beginning that buy-in from our fellow Albertans is the most effective way forward, as opposed to enforcement,” he said.
“But if there are still some folks who are going to flagrantly disregard the state that we are in, then we may have to make more stringent measures.
“We may have to look at potentially imposing a fine and empowering enforcement agencies to prevent large private social gatherings.”
Kaler said the fact that the province’s contact-tracing system is so backlogged highlights the need for more control over community spread of the virus.
“Once you’re into a situation where there are infected people all over the place and it’s not feasible to follow up constantly with each one of them, then the lockdown — circuit breaker, whatever you want to call it — it starts to emerge as the way that you have to go,” she said.
“Again, these are unpopular. Nobody likes them.
“I’m not surprised the provincial government is kind of bobbing and weaving and ducking and trying to avoid taking responsibility for implementing this stuff.”