Masks—it was about trusting the science until it wasn’t.
Being a science denier is a typical jab taken at those on the political right, often with good reason. From the denial of theories such as the big bang and evolution to the rejection of the climate crisis or the effectiveness of vaccines, segments of Canada’s conservative movement are anti-science.
These conversations around scientific facts are not entertained in Ottawa, mainly because it is a highly progressive city. The local conservative generally has a more red-Tory flavour of politics than a new-world creationist climate-change denier, anti-vaxxer that Canadians find in less liberal towns. This has put some of the political left into a headspace of being on the “scientific” side, which could be a rational conclusion, but the pandemic is starting to show the cracks in that foundational belief.
Readers are probably aware March 21st is when the province will be lifting restrictions on masking across the entirety of Ontario. There will never be an optimal time to force normality on people, but as of this month, it may be the closest to the best time to do so for various reasons.
The first and most apparent is that Ontario is highly vaccinated, with only 7 per cent of the province not being vaccinated with at least one dose. That is reason enough to get life back to normal. Although vaccination cannot prevent transmission entirely, it reduces the risk associated with Covid-19 so drastically that the coronavirus is no longer overwhelming hospitals and filling morgues across the country, with a desperate inability to do anything but distance and isolate, as we saw in 2020.
Another change has sped up the inevitable; the Omicron variant has burnt through the population at a rate so high that people cannot readily be tested, nor records accurately reflect how many people have had Covid-19. The milder variant has expedited the burnout of the virus as cases start to decline. With this in mind, the Ontario government is removing mask mandates when the kids return from March break.
Perhaps the most significant symbol of wise advice and caution throughout the pandemic in Ottawa has been the city's top doctor, Vera Etches. Etches, ever the cautious one, sees now as a time to start lifting mandates because the indicators of the virus are in decline. However, Etches said people who continue to wear masks should not be scrutinized for doing so, stating, “We are shifting to a space where individuals and their families must choose how to, rather than be mandated, to best protect themselves. This will include the decision to wear a mask in indoor or shared spaces.”
There is a notion among some in the city that this reopening is too early. Perhaps it will be, yet this also clashes with the fact that Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Quebec have taken similar measures to the Ford government but much sooner. Compared to almost any other Western country or European state, Canada has been overly cautious. Britain, for example, has virtually no coronavirus restrictions whatsoever, the same for Norway, which is a welfare state known in particular for its healthcare system and its social cautiousness.
Yet, the progressive side in Ottawa is accusing Doug Ford of what almost seems like premeditated homicide, and they blame the government for deaths that have yet to occur from the lifting of the mask mandates. Certain trustees at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and teachers' unions were, until recently, calling for a continuation of masking. Although some top regional doctors are against the lifting of the mandates, the province’s top doctor, Kieran Moore, believes that it is time to live with and manage the virus.
Moore cut his reputation in the early days of the pandemic by managing Kingston’s Covid response. The city did exceptionally well in handling the pandemic under his tenure. Moore’s credibility on covid begs a broader question; If the province’s top doctor thinks it’s okay for masks to go, and the cities top doctor has stated her tacit approval, why do the people who said to trust the science regarding vaccines, isolation, social distancing, and vaccine passports now think that this is a political decision?
In his attempt to manage the omicron wave, Doug Ford took a massive political risk by ordering another lockdown in January 2022 and was widely criticized by his base for doing. Was that decision political, or was it health-based? Given the indicators, it seems to have been health-based, just as given the indicators, the mask mandate lifting appears to be as well. It would not be fair to accuse Kieran Moore of being partisan in this choice; his overt caution in recent months shows him to be anything but.
In the last week, most of what has come out has been the accusation that Ford is lifting mandates to win votes in the provincial election this June. While this may be partially true, other experts across Canada and around the globe are making similar decisions. Ironically, the proclamation that mask-wearing will continue or should continue is by school board trustees, union heads, and opposition politicians, not by those in a position to mandate or enforce such policy. These groups have politicized wearing a mask rather than making it about health.
Wearing a mask now is no longer about trusting the science behind mask mandates—because the situation has evolved to the point where experts are saying they can go—to certain people, it is about demonstrating that they are more Covid conscience and anti-Doug Ford.
After two years of struggle, Ontario boasts some of the highest Covid vaccination rates globally; citizens will have to decide to wear masks based on their health and what they think is best, just as citizens choose whether to get vaccinated.
Life may never be back to the way it was pre-2019, but to keep masking in place for political points does not add credibility to science or public health officials; on the contrary, it hurts them.
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board recently rejected its own policy to extend masking. Were they against science? The province’s top doctor has gotten Ontario through this pandemic with a relatively minor death toll. Ontario has had 12,000 Covid deaths, a terrible loss, but just south of us, the similarly sized Pennsylvania lost 43,000 people to Covid. Quebec, which is also moving ahead to end restrictions, lost 14,202 people to the pandemic.
Doug Ford has consistently relied on science; it's time for the rest of Ontario to do the same.