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Mixed messages from governments confuse COVID-19 public response

Last Updated Dec 6, 2020 at 11:27 am MDT

CALGARY (CityNews) – Despite warnings from every level of government on the dangers of COVID-19, hundreds of anti-mask protesters again took to the streets of Calgary Saturday.

While criticism aimed at Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can usually be spotted in anti-mask rhetoric, negative mentions of conservative politicians are less common to see.

Jean-Christophe Boucher, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary, is studying social media trends among people who are resistant to COVID-19 measures.

“Most people who are the super-spreaders, who are resistant to adopting COVID-responsible behaviours, are, on aggregate, conservative-leaning voters,” said Boucher.

“It falls upon the leaders of these political parties to be more responsible and to say, well, we have a direct connection to these people, and thus, it’s up to us to up our game to do this.”

Boucher says to effectively communicate COVID-19 measures and risk, messages need to be clear and to the point.

“When you’re saying we’re not going to make vaccination mandatory, but get vaccinated, it sends two messages.

“Doing both at the same time is essentially trying to muddle the message and that doesn’t work in terms of communication.”

In a Facebook Live on Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney condemned retail and restaurant customers who attack employees after being asked to abide by face covering bylaws.

But Kenney also said he understands that some people will refuse to wear a mask out of “absolute principle,” and advised those people to avoid going to places where masks were required.

RELATED: Police charge three people following weekend anti-mask rally

Zain Velji worked on campaigns for both Mayor Nenshi and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

He says that a government message focusing on rights and freedoms during the pandemic is prioritizing politics before healthcare.

“Jason Kenney seems to be playing to the two sides of his political tent rather than the larger tent of the Alberta electorate, and that’s what needs to happen here,” said Velji.

“This is not about your political base and balancing your political interests, this is about balancing the safety and wellbeing and the livelihoods of all Albertans.”

The Alberta government directed CityNews to a tweet and another portion of the Facebook Live video when asked about the mixed messaging.

While the example does show emphasis of the dangers of COVID-19, the message of health is again mixed with that of rights.

On Saturday, in response to hundreds of Calgarians protesting COVID-19 restrictions, Premier Kenney expressed his disappointment with the crowds.

Looking forward, Boucher and Velji agree that a clear message that prioritizes the risks and importance of COVID-19 in governmental pandemic communications is essential to success.

Boucher adds that the Alberta NDP also have a role to play.

“By attacking the government, by attacking the messaging of the government and the management of the crisis, it doesn’t help convey trust in the Kenney government to actually manage this thing,” he said.

“The same way we’ve done with Fort McMurray’s fires, Albertans stand together.”