GOLDSTEIN: Canadians skeptical of governments on COVID-19

Despite never-ending promises by our governments to be open and transparent, a recent Leger poll shows half of Canadians believe they are withholding information about COVID-19.

A majority, 53% say they believe in one or more of 10 conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

For example, 37% agree COVID-19 was created in a lab, 34% that it was created by China’s government, 19% that the number of deaths has been exaggerated, 16% that there’s a cure being kept from the public.

Surprisingly, this comes amidst generally high approval ratings for municipalities (68%), provinces (78%) and the federal government (74%) during the pandemic.

In my view, there are three reasons for public skepticism about what governments are telling us about COVID-19, despite general satisfaction with their efforts to address it.

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We were initially told by Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, that wearing masks in public wouldn’t help and might make things worse, until she reversed herself and said wearing masks provided an additional layer of protection.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said restricting air travel and closing borders wouldn’t do any good, up until the day Trudeau did it.

In Ontario, government advice has gone from seeking a medical test for COVID-19 only if you have symptoms (public health), to going for a test regardless of symptoms (Premier Doug Ford), back to only going if you have symptoms.

Ontario refuses to release detailed information to the public about where the COVID-19 hotspots are in the province — which it knows down to the postal codes.

Instead, there’s been a piecemeal release of information, with Ford identifying Scarborough, north Etobicoke and Brampton as hard-hit and the health ministry citing Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex Country.

The speculation is the government is worried about stigmatizing neighbourhoods.

This even though it’s released detailed information about the number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 in long-term care homes — including names, their locations and which ones might face criminal charges of neglect.

If the concern about identifying COVID-19 hotspots is stigmatization, it reminds me of politicians and public health officials in Toronto in late January, lecturing us that it was racist not to eat in Chinese restaurants, a few weeks before they closed all restaurants.

During that time, COVID-19 was silently infecting thousands of Canadians, while the federal government and the Public Health Agency of Canada wrongly assured us, as late as Feb. 26, that the virus was contained and cases here would be rare.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Canada had over 87,000 COVID-19 cases and 6,700 deaths.

When governments give information to the public that turns out not to be true, or they contradict themselves, or their leaders say one thing and do another, the cumulative effect is that many people will come to believe their governments are either incompetent, or they’re hiding something.

And when people don’t know who or what to believe, it makes them vulnerable to fake news.