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Plenty of lessons to be learned about what not to do in a pandemic

As other jurisdictions open back up from the pandemic, Ontarians continue to chafe against some of the most onerous restrictions. This despite fairly high levels of vaccine acceptance, a practice being sold in part as a way to get back to something like our normal lives.

The increased crankiness is a product of time – the restrictions have been dragging on too long, especially when we see other places fully reopened without consequences.

While most of us have gone along with public health guidelines and continue to do so, there are those who’ve objected from the start to the likes of mandatory mask-wearing and business closures.

New research looking at why some people are more likely to object than others has an explanation: people who are more prone to boredom and who are socially conservative are more likely to break public-health rules.

“Many public-health measures such as wearing a mask or getting a vaccine have become highly politicized,” says James Danckert, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. “People who find these measures a threat to their identity, and who suffer from boredom a lot, find breaking the rules helps them re-establish a sense of meaning and identity. Boredom threatens our need to make meaning out of life and some things such as politics can strengthen our sense of identity and meaning.”

Danckert was part of a research survey in conjunction with colleagues at Duke University and Essex University. Their finding appeared as “Boredom proneness, political orientation and adherence to social-distancing in the pandemic” in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

The idea that those to the right on the political spectrum are more likely to oppose restrictions has certainly been widely discussed. We’ve seen plenty of that in the U.S., where every issue, no matter how trivial, can be politicized. Libertarianism clearly plays a part in those refusing to wear masks, for instance. And then there’s the prevalence of conspiracy theories.

That arguments disappear down that particular rabbit hole is tackled by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, which bills itself as separating sense from nonsense.

“Some people claim not to be against masks per se but against governments (and sometimes businesses) mandating their adoption. It’s always funny to me that these same people presumably stop at red lights and stick to the right lane when driving but a new, freedom-eroding mandate during their lifetime is their back-breaking straw. It may boil down to a concept known as ‘reactance,’ which is a knee-jerk reaction we all have, to varying degrees, when we feel our freedom is being limited. Waving the flag for freedom has become very popular with another reactionary group, the anti-vaccination movement,” writes the organization’s Jonathan Jarry in a piece last fall.

“Many conversations with anti-maskers as reported by journalists seem to devolve into the fifth and deepest category of arguments: that this is all part of a government conspiracy. Some outspoken anti-maskers believe this is just an exercise in compliance, with some erroneously claiming that Bill Gates is behind this entire pandemic.”

The same line of thought was explored in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last fall.

“Conservatives are also more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about COVID-19 – a trend that may have less to do with politics than trust in media, which has decreased across the board during the pandemic. As of July, almost 1 in 10 Canadians in a nationally representative survey believed Bill Gates is using the pandemic to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking people.

“The same survey linked fringe beliefs to lower compliance with public health precautions. Notably, the backdrop for speakers at one recent anti-mask rally in Montreal included a flag for QAnon – a far-right movement centred around a theory that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a global cabal of pedophiles.”

As the focus shifts from compliance to mask mandates and social distancing to getting everybody vaccinated, public health officials can find guidance in the likes of Danckert’s research.

A shift towards telling people what they can do rather than what they can’t would be a positive first step, he suggests. Likewise, don’t make the message all about personal responsibility, but rather on collective benefits.

“For people who have strong feelings about personal liberty, for instance, those public health measures start to feel like a threat to your personal identity. And that might then make them more prone to breaking the rules,” says Danckert.

“I think that means that we just need to emphasize different things. So, rather than emphasizing that sort of personal responsibility, individual responsibility, which will have different consequences to different people, I think we should emphasize what we all share in common, regardless of who you might vote for, or regardless of your particular political views.

“We all want to protect our children. We all want to protect our elders. We all want to get back to some semblance of normalcy. We’d all like to be able to go out to a cafe with friends or have a beer on a patio with friends. These are things that we all share in common, regardless of our political voice.”

There is a certain element of selling ‘what’s in it for me’ when it comes to promoting the vaccine and countering hesitancy – the region, for instance, is touting the quicker-route-to-normal line (along with noting the vaccine contains no microchip, a nod to the conspiracy theorists). And, yes, the sooner most people are inoculated, the sooner we may get back to our pre-pandemic lives … for the most part. At least in theory.

Canadians are much less likely to see inoculation as a political issue. The same goes for masks and other public health measures designed to reduce the spread of the virus, as Danckert notes.

After a slow start, the U.S. has surged ahead of Canada in getting people vaccinated against COVID-19. The pace there is starting to slow, however, in large part due to vaccine hesitancy. Let’s hope we avoid that here.

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