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Unpacking the "end the lockdown" protests

The 1918 flu pandemic had protestors, too.The San Francisco Anti-Mask League feared their civil liberties and constitutional rights were being trampled as they took to the streets in large crowds to protest mandatory masks in public.

A. young person speaks through a megaphone at a protest.

Jo Snyder

And here we are again. Why? 

“The cure is worse than the disease.” That’s a slogan from the anti-lockdown playbook you may have heard this past week.

“End the lock down” is their rally cry and unifies the groups’ missions on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else on the internet. 

It makes sense that 100 percent of a population isn’t going to get with the program and give up some freedoms without a fight. Maybe people are trying to make sense of what’s happening by looking for other narratives. 

Recent preliminary research done by the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec found that 1 in 10 Canadians believes in some coronavirus conspiracy. These include ideas like the coronavirus was created in a lab or that there’s already a cure.

Let’s dig into some of their main contentions and debunk myths and conspiracy theories.

The risk to the public is exaggerated: not true

Like we see in the Germany protests, many around the globe are claiming that the response has been overblown. 

An Angus Reid poll from earlier in the pandemic showed that about 1 in 8 Canadians felt that Canada’s response to the outbreak was “overblown,” and what flows is a restriction of our rights and freedoms. 

One protestor in Ontario claimed that Covid-19 was comparable to the flu, and that we deal with viruses all the time. In Regina, an associate professor of biology from the University of Regina ranted that our response was over the top, that antibody tests will prove that more people than we think have already had this thing, and that the lockdown was unnecessary.

Experts have roundly criticized him as ill-informed. 

So, is the response exaggerated? Covid-19 is so much worse than the flu. Early research by Lancet Infectious Diseases into the pandemic is pegging it as almost 27 times deadlier than the flu. And, we don’t have a vaccine yet. Journalist Justin Fox synthesizes the numbers for us. 

Our freedoms are being unethically restricted: not true

Restriction of freedom is a big concern for everyone. This includes freedom of privacy, freedom of assembly, freedom to travel.

Many echo the sentiment that we should only quarantine those who are sick and let those who are healthy go free. Some ask, is a lockdown a political decision or a science-based one? In Canada, the lockdown has been driven purely by recommendations of health experts who have been closely monitoring developments as we learn more about the virus and its transmission.

One of the challenges is that we still don’t fully understand the scope of asymptomatic carriers (blog on that to come). Doctors in the U.S. are starting to see patients in their 30s and 40s suffering massive strokes and testing positive for COVID-19 without showing known symptoms. What was once just considered a threat to the lungs, is now affecting the heart, kidneys, and brain. We still don’t know the full impact of COVID-19.

In New Zealand, adherence to stay at home measures and widespread testing has helped that country nearly wipe out the pandemic. 

Sweden, a country with a stay at home option, rather than an order, is seeing a climbing death toll relative to its neighbours who have opted for stricter restrictions. 

So are we restricting freedoms or saving lives and how can we have a conversation about the difference?

The cure is worse than the cause: not true

Some are very worried that globally we’re headed for a depression worse than the 1930s. 

This is a real concern for all of us. It’s not unique to the #endthelockdown protestors, though there is a bit of a different tone on either side.

In Canada, and elsewhere, the playbook messaging among protests seems to be “the cure is worse than the cause.“  The fear is that we’re harming our long-term economic health, businesses’ chances to recover, and the ability to support our families by extending this lockdown. Some estimates speculate that 40% of Canadian small businesses won’t survive the lockdown. 

Despite these concerns, a new Angus Reid poll shows the majority of Canadians think public health and safety should carry more weight than economic considerations right now.

Around the world, governments are wrestling with when they can safely reopen their economies as estimates of a global economic slump look worse and worse. 

We’re just starting to collectively think about what opening up will look like. As the U.S. charges ahead in some states, we’ll be able to see exactly what will happen, for better or worse. Is this just a simple matter of jobs versus lives, or whose lives matter more for some people?

Still, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam warns us about relying on herd immunity to reopen the economy quickly saying that people of all ages are getting sick enough to be sent to the ICU. And without a full understanding of Covid-19 antibodies, jumping to open everything up could prove deadly.   

So far the protest crowds in Canada are small: some 200 in Toronto on the weekend and maybe 25 at one in Vancouver last week. Just six people showed up for a protest in Windsor. Protests are still in the works for Edmonton and possibly other cities across the country. Don’t expect them to stop for any reason. 

What we should consider about why we’re in lockdown

Are protestors missing the point of our shared objective? Flattening the curve, protecting people and our health care system from an unduly burden of illness? Or are they just not buying it?

Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says that “this disease is showing us that it’s not going away quietly, and it’s found places that it can continue to cause death and destruction — and it’s hanging on in those places. 

“We basically have to be patient and keep doing what we’re doing — do better at some things, particularly in the hospitals and institutions like long-term care and prisons — and stick with it. 

“We will get there, but one almost sees in the public dialogue this tremendous desire to declare victory and reopen the economy. I don’t think things are going to work out for us that simply.” 

Dr. Fisman reminds us that we have to take re-opening slowly, incrementally, otherwise we will endure waves and waves of infection, sickness, and death. 

By 1919, San Francisco saw another spike of infections spread throughout the city after the initial mask ordinance was lifted, and they fought with Anti-Mask League participants to reinstall it to help get the city back on track with getting rid of the flu.

In the end, the city suffered over 3,000 deaths and an estimated 45,000 cases, some of the highest numbers in the U.S. 

It’s hard if we don’t all agree on motives, the credibility of sources, or trust our leadership, both elected and appointed. There’s no question that this pandemic is cause for a lot of philosophizing about what is the right thing to do for the best possible outcome. 

But the bigger mission here, today, is to prevent unnecessary death and suffering. It’s to protect our health system and especially our front line workers from being buried alive. It’s to stick together, apart. 


Jo Snyder is a seasoned communications professional with expertise on the social determinants of health and health equity. Over her career, she's worked with think tanks, non-profits and big tech to deliver comms of all kinds.

This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.


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