The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a whole new lexicon of words and phrases over the past 18 months, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced another one last week: “one-dose summer, two-dose fall.”
He made the reference in a press conference when asked about when Canadians could see some of the restrictions in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus lift, and what the current rollout plan means for the hopes of a close-to-normal summer.
Following his response, he faced more questions about what exactly a “one-dose summer” means and experts say the situation highlights the difficulties politicians face in trying to communicate around a core — yet challenging — tenet of science: it can always change.
“It’s a very catchy phrase to have this kind of parallel between one-dose and two-dose. I mean, these are phrases that are are sort of tightly packaged, almost PR moves,” said Jessica Mudry, associate chair of the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University.
Mudry is also a former chemist and researcher for the Discovery Channel, and is a specialist in science communication.
“I think that what is lacking behind that is what that actually means scientifically. And I think that what we need to do is start educating the public about the scientific ramifications of what one-dose summer, two-dose fall actually means.”
Mudry and Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, joined The West Block guest host Mike Le Couteur for a discussion around how the government is communicating the science of COVID-19 — and what can be done better.
Both pointed to the constantly changing nature of the virus and the measures needed to respond as a major challenge in building and maintaining public trust, as well as the need to make sure Canadians understand not just how the rules are changing, but why.
“I think that many people get the idea that ‘follow the science’ means that we are doing experiments, checking facts off as we identify them. And that’s really not how science works,” Rasmussen said.
“Science is normally couched in uncertainty and we don’t know many things. In fact, most policies are made in a situation where there is great uncertainty. So any type of policy, any type of guidance for what people should be doing in their daily lives can change as we get new information.”
It is often human nature to gravitate towards absolutes — this or that, yes or no — but Rasmussen and Mudry noted that isn’t always possible in science, where theories and hypotheses are constantly being tested and updated as new information emerges.
The more the public knows to expect those changes, the less of a shock it might be to them when advice or expectations suddenly have to be changed, they said.
“People do like the line in the sand. They like very, very distinct binaries — this is X, this is Y. But science really moves forward because of gray areas, and we are living a gray area right now,” Mudry said.
“Sometimes that’s where a lot of frustration comes — a lot of politicking comes.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole faced questions last week over a tweet his party put out and then quickly deleted about Trudeau’s “one-dose summer” vision.
The tweet included two photos, one of a group of unmasked people gathering together and laughing under the tagline “two-dose summer,” while the second showed a photo of a man lying in a hospital bed hooked up to an oxygen mask.
That second image featured the tagline: “Trudeau summer.”
O’Toole acknowledged last week that the tweet “detracted” from the conversation about how to safely reopen society, but said there remains a “serious discussion” to be had on how to move forward.
Public health officials on Friday laid out the first benchmarks for what they want to see before it will likely be safe to consider broader reopening: specifically, 75 per cent of Canadians vaccinated with one dose of a vaccine, and 20 per cent fully vaccinated with both doses.
If that happens, officials said Canadians could see a return to outdoor activities like sitting on patios and having barbecues with friends outdoors — though that remains an “aspirational target,” according to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam.
Mudry said the conversation around what people can expect next needs to acknowledge that a lot can still change and that most importantly, politicians do not have all the answers.
“A lot of times, people think that it comes from a moment of weakness but it actually helps foster trust between a speaker and their audience being able to say, ‘I really don’t know this right now, but we are doing our best to get the most up to date, the most scientifically sound information as it happens.’”
“I think it would instill a little bit more trust from the Canadian public towards the government.”
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