Public health opinions in Alberta entrenched during COVID-19 pandemic, study says

A pedestrian wearing a mask walks through an empty downtown Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A new study tracking the sentiments of Albertans through the first three years of the COVID-19 pandemic is a window into how entrenched people have become over their views of the pandemic and resulting public health measures.

“Early on, I think we saw that most people thought the government was doing about the right thing. Some thought it was too fast, some thought it was too slow. But then in the depths of it, in the fall of 2021 in particular, we saw huge division,” University of Calgary professor of political science Lisa Young said.

“One of the interesting things — and I don’t think you see this in other provinces when you look at this kind of opinion — is that there were lots of people who thought that the government should be doing more,” University of Calgary professor of political science Lisa Young said. “But there was also a substantial group who thought that the government should be doing less.

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“And so there was so little support for the government’s approach as it tried to find its way down the middle of that.”

Read more: Alberta auditor says staff shortages led to major care home problems during pandemic

That “substantial group” who thought the province was opening up too slowly and who thought the public health measures were too harsh ranged between 10 and 25 per cent in the three years of surveys done for the Common Ground political science research team at the University of Alberta, with whom Young works.

“That’s really interesting, especially when you keep in mind that most of the time through the pandemic, Alberta’s measures were actually less restrictive than what you saw in the rest of Canada,” she said.

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Swings in opinion

In August 2020, Common Ground’s Viewpoint Alberta survey asked if Albertans thought the opening of activities and businesses was happening too quickly, too slowly, or just about right.

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A majority of respondents — 55 per cent — felt it was “about right.” A third said that it was “too quick” and just one in 10 thought it was “too slow.”

Subsequent surveys in March 2021, September 2021, April 2022 and January 2023 found variations in those sentiments, with “too slow” reaching a peak in March 2021 and “too fast” only six months later.

It wasn’t until January 2023 — a year after nearly all restrictions were removed — that the “about right” reached a peak sentiment of 60 per cent.

The January 2023 survey also asked for a look back at the past three years. One quarter thought the measures were too harsh and 31 per cent thought they were too lenient, meaning the majority of respondents thought the government “got it wrong” in its approach to pandemic management.

Read more: Alberta government names 5 new members to Preston Manning-led COVID review panel

The series of surveys found there was a difference in opinion of pandemic management by partisan affiliation and left/right political identification.

“In a lot of ways, it’s not surprising what we see in the research here (and) in the United States broadly, is that after the the first couple of months, views about the pandemic became highly politicized, both in terms of partisan identification, but also where you fell on the left-right spectrum,” Young said.

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Over the five survey periods, UCP supporters consistently sided with the government’s response, while more NDP supporters were more likely to say the pandemic restrictions were “too lenient.” In January 2023, UCP, NDP and unaffiliated opinions all trended away from the idea the pandemic restrictions were “too lenient.”

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Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic

Nearly three-quarters of people who viewed themselves as “very right wing” thought the restrictions were “too harsh” and only 57 per cent of those who identified as “very left wing” viewed restrictions as “too lenient.”

Rating the decision makers

The surveys also asked for approval ratings of the Government of Canada, the Alberta government, the chief medical officer of health and Alberta Health Services on a one to 10 scale — ratings that again stuck to party lines.

As a whole, AHS and the CMOH got better average scores than either governments.

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Urban and suburban respondents were generally more positive than their country cousins.

Read more: Alberta NDP demands answers on premier’s conversations with accused in COVID cases

“Rural respondents were more negative in all their assessments, and ranked the Government of Canada as having the worst performance,” the study reads.

“When performance evaluations are broken down by vaccination status, the pattern is starker.”

Unvaccinated respondents gave all four authorities ratings of around half of what their fully-vaccinated counterparts did. But their opinions differed about the Alberta government: unvaccinated respondents ranked Alberta as second-highest of the four bodies, and fully-vaccinated ranked them last, on average.

“I think that if you roll up your sleeves and dig a little deeper on this, one of the things that you find is that a lot of the predictors correlate with each other,” the U of C political scientist said.

“So people who identify as being right wing, people who identify as UCP supporters, might also be more likely to be in rural areas.”

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Warnings ahead

But the even split of opinion of who should be making public health decisions between the chief medical officer of health or the government could be a major challenge for the next pandemic, which scientists are warning about as society recovers from the current one.

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“If we were hit with a different pandemic, we not only have this sense of, you know, really strong division and some quite dug-in positions about how the province ought to respond and in specific terms. But we don’t even have agreement about who should be making the decisions,” Young said.

Ongoing research Young and her team is doing is teasing out how the pandemic could affect the election scheduled for May 29. Early findings point in two different directions.

Read more: More concerns raised about Preston Manning’s role as chair of Alberta COVID panel

“On one hand, what we see is that there’s a real sense of unhappiness across a range of factors as people look back on the pandemic,” she said, noting respondents are reporting poorer financial, mental and physical health.

“And then we asked, ‘Do you think it’s left the province more divided or less divided?’ And overwhelmingly, the answer is it’s left us more divided. So that speaks to kind of a surly electorate that might be looking for accountability.”

But there also appears to be a sense of growing hope.

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“Over the past year, there has been a growing sense of optimism, especially about the future of Alberta,” Young said. “Now, I think that probably has as much to do with the price of oil as it does with the pandemic ending, but it’s both those things.

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“That might very well have voters leaving the pandemic behind them and looking to support whoever they feel channels that sense of hope and optimism.”

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