anti-science protest

The freedom to be selfish: Anti-maskers are a public health risk

“If this is all a ‘hoax,’ there’s a lot of dead people who need to stop faking it.”

If you managed to catch online images from the latest anti-mask protests that unfolded in Montreal this past weekend and your immediate reaction was a mix of confusion, worry, anger and, yes, even a little pity for the participants, you’re not alone. Come join my support group, I’m So Tired of Covidiots, ISTOC for short. If I sound a little judgmental, it’s only because I’m judging them. I no longer have the patience to politely refer to these anti-maskers and other conspiracy clowns as misguided and misinformed Quebecers.

At this point in the game, as the global number of deaths continues to rise, and we have educated ourselves about the many benefits of masks, refusing to wear one in the name of “freedom” is both supremely selfish and stupid. It’s also deeply disrespectful to the many people I know in this city alone who have lost loved ones and colleagues to the virus. If this is all a “hoax,” there’s a lot of dead people who need to stop faking it.

Seven months into this global pandemic, and as we start to prepare for a likely second wave, the last thing we need are people downplaying it. Listen… I get that we’re all burnt out. We’re all collectively reeling from anxiety, financial worries, skepticism about the government’s questionable and highly improvisational back-to-school plan and preparing psychologically and physically for the long winter ahead. We don’t need to add conspiracy theories from people who have the audacity to equate wearing a mask indoors for public health considerations with slavery.

Winter is coming

As summer winds down and the days start to get shorter and colder, we’re collectively trying to figure out how best to prepare for the next six months of dark, depressing days that will deprive us of even the little joys that have kept us content. Being a summer person, fall has always held a certain amount of dread for me. But this year, it looms particularly ominous, knowing that my ability to bike, spend time outdoors, soak up the sun and gather safely with friends for a picnic in the park will no longer be options.

Unlike Saturday’s “freedom fighters,” I have severely restricted my life and have been following public health directives, aiming as best as I can not to afflict myself and the people I love with a virus that scientists continue to reveal has long term health effects even for the lucky survivors. Every day, new studies show that COVID-19 leaves many young and old with heart, lung and neurological issues. A recent Penn State study revealed that 30 to 35 per cent of top-tiered college athletes who got COVID-19 ended up with myocardia, an inflammation of the heart muscle, which can be fatal. Think about that for a minute. If 30 per cent of young people in the best shape of their lives show signs of a potentially fatal illness, maybe the out-of-shape karaoke-singing, Trump-loving, conspiracy-peddling segment of our population doesn’t have the odds stacked in their favour after all.

I continue to be shocked that a province with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths (we’re closing in on 6,000) has somehow still managed to be a breeding ground for these (albeit small and obscure) groups who think it’s their inalienable right to fight for the “freedom”not to give a damn about their fellow citizens.

Holy confusion, Batman!

Looking at images from Saturday’s protest, I was baffled by the sheer confusion of the participants, both in terms of symbolism and slogans. The Quebec fleur-de-lis, Trump 2020 “Make America Great Again” flags, American flags, Mouvement de liberation national du Québec flags (a movement founded by former FLQ member Raymond Villeneuve and which always look conspicuously like the Patriotes flags) were all flapping in the wind, like some bad, confusing joke. What in the world kind of allegiances were these and what did they even have in common other than sheer denial?

The flag that baffled me the most was the Trump 2020 flag. Imagine looking to the country and the leader that has bungled the response to the pandemic the most — to the tune of 195,000 Americans dead at last count — and thinking: “This is who I want to emulate. This is what I aspire to.” How out of touch with reality do you have to be?How does a global death toll of close to one million not change the conversation for you? How do you find yourself flying a flag in honour of a man who represents the ultimate in selfish individuality and a for-profit administration while enjoying all the benefits of socialized Medicare?

Demonstrators at Saturday’s protest had signs denouncing the “dictatorship” of masks. What dictatorship? Do these anti-maskers even know what a totalitarian government is?  What’s so freedom-restricting about putting on a piece of fabric while in close contact with others? Are you holding a protest for seatbelts and food inspections next week or are you comfortable with those safety measures?

I know there continues to be an understandable and admittedly sometimes confusing debate about how to best protect people from a deadly virus while allowing them the ability to continue to live, work and enjoy life and still maintain a healthy dose of sanity and emotional well-being.

But, seven months in, there should no longer be a debate about what the science is clear on and what the evidence presents as irrefutable: mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing work. They save lives. Recent studies have even proven that, aside from working to prevent transmission of the virus, masks significantly reduce the viral load of COVID-19. This means that, even if someone does get sick, they suffer from a milder form and experience fewer symptoms and long-term effects. That alone is worth the mild inconvenience of wearing the mask.

The focus should be elsewhere

As we’re heading into winter, and the kids are back at school, what should concern everyone in this province is one thing and one thing only: how well prepared are we for the second wave?

The tragic lessons of the past year and the death toll in CHSLDs and seniors’ homes forced the public health system to take a good, hard look at the way it operates. New orderlies are being trained. No longer will staff be moving back and forth between long-term care facilities unknowingly infecting their patients with every move. PPEs have been ordered and mandatory masks on public transit and indoor spaces has gone a long way towards flattening that curve.

But there’s lots to be leery of. Flu season is around the corner, COVID-19 numbers have started to inch upwards again with the opening of our (badly funded) schools, the government continues to reject calls to implement mandatory masks in classrooms and I still have a lot of questions about its so-called bubble system, which so far appears to be nothing more than a bunch of overlapping circles connecting everyone I know by a few degrees of separation. Government transparency regarding school outbreaks has also been abysmal, forcing private citizens to create their own database.

And our healthcare system is still hopelessly sick, even though the CAQ has coasted these past few months on a summer reprieve that gave everyone the chance to catch their breath. As deaths and cases slowed down to a trickle, Quebecers desperate to enjoy the last vestiges of a summer that seems to have eluded them opted to take their eyes off the ticker. But even if we’re tired of the pandemic, the pandemic isn’t tired of us. It’s still here.

Is our healthcare system ready for a second wave?

If you pay close attention to the people working in the healthcare system, they’ve continued to sound the alarm. Burned-out emergency-room nurses in many Quebec hospitals have been staging sit-ins, and as Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel recently highlighted in a Twitter thread, in Montreal alone, 800 nurses have quit since March. Our healthcare network is still extremely vulnerable and all it would take is a drastic uptick in COVID cases to overwhelm our system once again.

And instead of collectively focusing on tackling these trouble spots, preparing for a second wave as best as we can and doing everything we can to stack the odds in our favour as we wait for science to do what it does best, we’ve got anti-maskers, QAnon and child-trafficking conspiracy theorists and far-right groups that believe in 5G radiation, but somehow don’t believe in vaccines, coming together to protest, both here and around the country. It’s frustrating to watch people taking to the streets to “march for freedom” and claiming the effects of COVID are overstated, when in fact they have largely been contained and are somewhat under control because of overwhelming public compliance with public health measures. It’s enough to make you want to become a misanthrope.

I recognize that the past year has been scary and unpredictable, and that fear, misinformation and a desire to regain some measure of control is the main motivator behind these “brave” declarations of freedom and defiance. But, even if I understand and empathize with the motivators, I don’t need to respect the reactions. Anti-maskers are selfish and self-absorbed and deeply antithetical to being a responsible member of society. These people are a public health risk and should be treated as such. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.