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COVID-19 communication in N.S. and the hot-button political issue it continues to be

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This week in Nova Scotia, Liberal Opposition Leader Iain Rankin said the province’s approach to sharing COVID-19 information is “a new level of ignorance.”

However, Nova Scotia’s health minister said in an interview the Tory government is using science to make the best decisions for Nova Scotians.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the provincial government had approached the pandemic by sharing information when it was available.

Along with implementing some of the strictest measures in the country, former Liberal premiers Stephen McNeil and Rankin held daily or weekly livestreamed COVID-19 briefings. Detailed epidemiology reports were released every day.

Read more: From ‘stay the blazes home’ to ‘get back out there’: How COVID-19 messaging is shifting in N.S.

The new Progressive Conservative premier, Tim Houston, began to gradually ease restrictions in mid-February, and with that, the frequency of COVID-19 updates eased as well.

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By the time most restrictions were lifted on March 21, the province ended regular livestreamed updates and shortly after, the epidemiology reports were reduced to once a week.

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Transparency or fearmongering?

Dalhousie University political science professor Lori Turnbull said transparency is what gave people a sense of trust in the system during the pandemic.

Also, she said it’s what helped justify restrictions.

“It gives the government a bit more legitimacy to make the kinds of decisions it’s making, in terms of shutting down business, shutting down schools, mask mandates, vaccine certificates,” she told Global News.

“It’s almost like the government has to show their work and show their proof.”

Read more: Each month of 2022 has seen more COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia than the last

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Since restrictions were lifted, the government doesn’t need to show proof anymore, and there is less pressure to share information.

Minister of Health Michelle Thompson said the provincial government is satisfied with how it’s been communicating COVID-19 and it is giving Nova Scotians access to the same information they have.

“I believe that Nova Scotians are armed with the information that they need,” said Thompson, adding that messaging around public health recommendations has been consistent regardless of mandates. “I feel that Nova Scotians of all ages are very well versed in those,” she said.

Read more: Nova Scotia reports 22 new COVID-19 deaths in recent weekly update

In early April, a two-minute-long video of Houston indicated COVID-19 cases are expected to continue to rise and people don’t need mandates to tell them how to be safe.

Rankin then criticized the premier for his approach to sharing information. He commented on the April 6 video, saying, “If the Premier has time to make a video, he should have time to hold a COVID briefing.”

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A month later, Rankin’s calls for briefings and daily updates continue.

“Dr. Strang has repeatedly said that ‘COVID is still with us,’ but the Houston government is making it very hard for Nova Scotians to hear that message,” read a Tuesday release from the Liberals.

The opposition said a virtual media availability with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang held last week — following the release of the weekly COVID-19 report — should have been public.

“We’ve seen a disturbing trend of data erosion from this government but restricting people from watching the weekly COVID briefing is a new level of ignorance,” said Rankin in the release.

Read more: COVID-19 sixth wave: 5 ways Canadians can reduce and evaluate health risks

Liberal MLA for Bedford Basin Kelly Regan agrees.

“For the Houston government, public health isn’t public anymore,” Regan said in an interview Wednesday.

“This premier says he trusts Nova Scotians to do the right thing. It would be nice if he trusted them enough to give them the information so they can do the right thing.”

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Thompson said though livestreamed briefings were important, they have a time and place.

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Viewership of COVID-19 briefings had reduced over the past eight months.

Facebook analytics provided by the province show a Sept. 14, 2021 briefing reached 263.6 thousand users, while one on April 14, 2022, reached just 22.9 thousand users.

“I want to acknowledge, though, that there are some people who still are very fearful of COVID,” said Thompson, adding she wants to ensure that the information available on the provincial website and its weekly reports is the same information used in decision-making.

As COVID-19 changes, so does communication

Analyst Turnbull said strategy around communicating COVID-19 to the public is political, but not “necessarily a highly partisan decision.”

She added that the pandemic has changed the way the Liberal Party approached communication with the public. Albeit, the pandemic was the first crisis of its sort for the province.

Read more: Ongoing COVID-19 restrictions for long-term care facilities impacting residents

When COVID-19 began in 2020, the province’s Liberal government at the time was led by Stephen McNeil.

“I don’t think that anyone has ever accused Stephen McNeil of oversharing,” said Turnbull. “To the contrary, his government had a reputation of not being transparent and open enough, to a fault.”

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But for months, he gave Nova Scotians regular, at times daily, live briefings on new epidemiology with Dr. Strang by his side.

Turnbull said Nova Scotia stood out at the time for keeping in line with public health advice on COVID-19 and set as an example of managing the virus.

When Rankin took over leadership in early 2021, he continued the transparent approach, hosting live briefings and providing regular updates. His COVID-19 briefings also often involved ministers who pitched in on how COVID-19 fit into their department’s decision-making.

Read more: Nova Scotia plan to address challenges in health system panned for lacking detail

With Houston’s election, the COVID-19 approach changed.

But, Turnbull said, so had the virus.

“But even in provinces where the government stayed the same, the reaction to how to manage COVID-19 in a post-vaccine world still changed,” she said.

“I don’t think we can totally take the lens of ‘this is a politically different response.’ I think even if we still had Premier McNeil, his approach would have changed because the nature of the situation changed.”

Minister Thompson echoed this.

“This is a very different time in the pandemic, and that doesn’t matter which government is in,” she said.

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Thompson said the Tories are “following the science” when it comes to making decisions on not only mandates but communication strategy.

“I think that we have all risen to the occasion and done the best that we can and with the information that we have.”

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According to Liberal MLA Regan, if Liberals were still in power, they “would have a different approach to communication.”

“Our approach was always to be open and upfront with Nova Scotians and let them know what’s going on.

“Most people don’t understand that we have thousands of cases in our province right now and that nearly 75 people have died from COVID in recent weeks,” she said. “The handling of COVID – that has to be above and beyond politics.”

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Read more: COVID-19 booster shots will be a focus going forward, vaccine makers say

However, criticizing Houston’s approach is the Liberal opposition’s job, says Turnbull.

“They’re absolutely trying to score political points.”

Being vocal about the lack of transparency could be a way of undermining Houston’s credibility, she notes.

“It’s typical that they’re going to try to say to people, ‘Look, Tim Houston isn’t really telling you everything that you should know,’” she said.

“There’s no election around the corner here, and Houston’s approval ratings are quite high.”

According to Turnbull, “this is just normal politics.”

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