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Canada has made considerable progress when it comes to COVID-19. We shouldn’t give in to conspiracy theories now

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where misinformation and conspiracy theories can seep into government decision-making and has shown how social media can spread incorrect information that is a danger to public health. The United States has been the prime example of this, with COVID-19 cases growing at a staggering rate while President Donald Trump continues to share information that contradicts the advice of scientists and experts. By comparison, Canada’s response has been more or less in line with public health recommendations and cases in Canada have been much lower — about 120,000 cases total across the country compared to more than five million in the US

However, Canada’s success can also present a challenge when it comes to convincing some people about the severity and seriousness of the virus. With the worst-case outcomes avoided so far and the curve successfully flattened, the measures that Canadians have been asked to follow can seem like an overreaction. This has created what some have called a “paradox of prevention,” where the more successfully we prevent the spread of the virus, the more we might begin to believe it’s not really a threat. 

Convincing others of the effectiveness of prevention, even when the benefits have proven themselves, can be difficult. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that among the obstacles to implementing prevention strategies is the fact that “the success of prevention is invisible, lacks drama, often requires persistent behavior change, and may be long delayed.” Prevention requires group effort, individual accountability, and long-term thinking, with the rewards being far off and hard to measure. 

In the case of Canada, however, our neighbours to the south can act as a direct point of comparison, making the benefits of prevention and following public health advice demonstrably clear. But even so, conspiracy groups in Canada have continued to gain followers while spreading inaccurate information, including instances of racism and scapegoating of people based on their ethnic origin, as well as misleading claims about the spread, severity, and dangers of COVID-19.

One group, calling themselves “Hugs Over Masks,” circulated pamphlets in downtown Toronto and on social media spreading the false claim that mask-wearing was dangerous to the health of wearers. Anti-mask demonstrations have appeared in Montreal, Winnipeg, and other cities across Canada. Now, as vaccine production moves forward, skepticism and misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines has also begun to grow.

The reasons behind the popularity of conspiracy theories is complex, but one important element is an acute mistrust of politicians and government institutions, sometimes veering into paranoia. And with the pandemic disrupting so much about our day to day lives, necessitating somewhat drastic government policies like physical distancing and lockdown measures, mistrust is further amplified. 

University of Guelph professor Maya Goldenberg told the CBC that conspiracy theories around both mask-wearing and vaccines are linked to feelings of public confidence. “When you don’t trust the sort of basic infrastructure that’s supposed to support public well being, you’re going to come up with all kinds of tactics to try to resist it,” said Goldenberg. 

To help counteract conspiracy beliefs, doctors and other experts need to be patient and respectful when addressing misinformed people. “If there’s one way to get people defensive, it is to disparage them and not to take them seriously,” said Goldenberg. Creating and building trust is a long and difficult process but individual interactions can have an impact. 

If friends or loved ones begin to show interest in conspiracy theories, it’s also helpful to remember that their response could be related to fear and unease; anxiety in response to existential threats is commonly associated with conspiracy beliefs. Talking to loved ones in a calm way, rooted in facts, and asking about the source of their information can also be helpful.  

Misinformation has become a huge obstacle to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s important that we continue to have difficult conversations about the accuracy and reliability of the news we consume. Recently, Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, stated that physical distancing and mask-wearing measures could continue for the next two to three years. To move forward, knowing how to communicate accurate information will be essential for our long-term success.