Alberta lawyer accuses Hinshaw of ‘controlling the narrative’ around COVID-19

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw pictured at a COVID-19 press conference in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020. Alberta lawyer Leighton Grey accused Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw of "controlling the narrative" around COVID-19 in court on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Lawyer Leighton Grey accused Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw of “controlling the narrative” around COVID-19 in court on Tuesday.

Hinshaw took the stand at a civil trial on Monday, maintaining that public health restrictions were necessary to protect the province’s health-care system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several churches and individuals in Alberta filed a constitutional challenge against the province in December 2020, accusing the government of violating Albertans’ rights by imposing public health orders and restrictions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The applicants claim the restrictions were unlawful and violated the province’s bill of rights and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Grey, who represents the plaintiffs, asked why Hinshaw only referred people to the Alberta Health Services website — along with academic websites and other government websites — for information about COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic when there were other sources available.

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He then asked if she tried to “win over” people who were not “buying into the government narrative” around COVID-19 at the time.

“That was the goal of government: to shape people’s attitudes and behaviour and to control their behaviour so that they would comply with whatever the government is telling them to do… That’s what we’re talking about,” Grey said during cross-examination on Tuesday.

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In response, Hinshaw said she was afraid of the availability of accurate and reliable information about COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic.

She referenced the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic and said she encouraged Albertans to seek out peer-reviewed research and government websites for information about the virus.

“We know that people’s choices and behaviours are influenced by their attitudes and beliefs about the world,” Hinshaw said.

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Grey later asked Hinshaw about a press conference where she had to correct an error in COVID-19 case data. Grey asked if the publication of wrong information and a later issuance of a correction could be classified as misinformation, to which Hinshaw disagreed.

“To me, misinformation is information that people know to be inaccurate that’s shared for the purposes of misleading others,” she said.

“At no time did we share information that we knew to be incorrect with the purpose of misleading others.”

Public health restrictions were discriminatory, Grey claims

Grey questioned Hinshaw’s decision to ban in-person dining and outdoor gatherings before the December holiday season in 2020.

He referred to a passage in Hinshaw’s affidavit where she said the continued rapid growth in cases at the time will necessitate a stronger response heading into the holiday season. He claimed that the passage unfairly targeted those who celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.

“This is the impression, that people who celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas were targeted by these restrictions that they would be most impacted. That’s what this appears to say. Do you agree?” he asked.

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Hinshaw disagreed, saying it was a statement of fact.

“The intent of that particular paragraph is to outline the fact that there are gatherings that happen in the month of December for various reasons and that we know very clearly that having people come together for social interactions indoors,” she said.

People hold different values about behaviour change: Hinshaw

On Tuesday afternoon, Grey asked if Hinshaw ever thought the loss of personal freedoms was an inconvenience, referencing a passage in her affidavit where she said people needed to change their behaviours during the pandemic.

Hinshaw said the intent behind the statement was to say that behaviour change, not personal freedoms, is inconvenient because people have different deep-seated beliefs and values. She also said she didn’t intend to change people’s values.

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“These are the factors that are needing to be taken into account as we consider what potential options there are for managing the risk of COVID,” she said.

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Later in the cross-examination, Grey asked what she meant by a “new normal” in March 2020.

“On March 2020, only seven cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Alberta, but you’re already talking about a new normal. What did you mean at that time by a new normal?” he asked.

Hinshaw said she was talking about behaviour modification because the virus was still unknown at the time.

“I think we all remember a time where going to work with a mild cold was considered not just normal, but proof of the dedication to work,” she said.

“This is not an overreaction, but rather a very practical way of limiting the spread of germs.”

The trial continues on Wednesday.

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