Parliament Ottawa trucker freedom convoy protest photos

You can’t honk away a pandemic

“A basic understanding of mitigation efforts vs. hospital capacity seems to go over the heads of protesters who decided that we should stop our collective efforts to protect the most vulnerable during a global pandemic just because they’ve had enough.”

When the so-called Freedom Convoy started making headlines last week, I called the protest a “collective temper tantrum.” Nothing that’s happened since has made me change my mind. If anything, the escalation of disruption tactics, the relentless occupation of downtown Ottawa and the often-criminal behaviour associated with it, not to mention the suspension of the convoy’s GoFundMe campaign, and by-now substantial proof of questionable U.S. elements behind it, have only solidified my ongoing belief that the generalized frustration of some Canadians over COVID measures was sinisterly used by right-wing groups that had other, much more malicious goals in mind. 

Even those reluctant to connect the dots need to grudgingly acknowledge that what some have repeatedly tried to paint as a homegrown, grassroots, working class movement about COVID mandates has, so far, really been much more about a foreign-funded occupation and political destabilization movement. 

Prominent GOP members and Trump supporters like Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene have all angrily denounced GoFundMe for suspending the fundraiser — almost as if they had a personal stake in its success. These people are, to say the least, problematic, for reasons ranging from their false allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election to Holocaust denial to posting COVID vaccine misinformation. They’re the same people who think the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — where 5 people died, and 140 police officers were injured — was “legitimate political discourse.” 

What we’re seeing in Ottawa isn’t a lawful protest of people who just want to be heard, but a full-blown occupation meant to terrorize and disrupt people’s lives, irrationally hoping to force the government to bend to their wishes. These are people draped in faux patriotism, threatening residents, spewing racist slurs, obstructing ambulances and issuing ultimatums in the form of manifestos to democratically elected governments, who somehow think they (and not public health experts in conjunction with our political leaders) get to decide when mandates will end. 

Convoy protests not the ‘will of the people’

Parliament Ottawa trucker convoy protest photos

Despite their claims, they do not represent the “will of the people.” Close to 70% of Canadians interviewed in an Abacus Data nationwide poll feel they have “very little in common with how the protestors in Ottawa see things.” A clear majority of Ottawa residents oppose the convoy and their demonstrations in the city. Those who strongly oppose the protest are almost four times as many as those who strongly support it. While many Canadians may sympathize with their frustration, they’re not in favour of their tactics. So, no, they’re not “speaking for us.” Most of “us” just want them to go home. And any questions regarding the legitimacy of the current government were settled with a federal election only a few months ago. Whatever your feelings about Prime Minister Trudeau, he’s right in not meeting with them. 

We all feel pandemic fatigue

This has primarily been an often-pointless movement riding the wave of collective frustration and pandemic fatigue. Those honking away and occupying Ottawa are tired of mandates and inconsistent messaging, you say? Cool. Join the club. No one likes these restrictions. No one enjoys them. Those out on the streets yelling and harassing people don’t have the market cornered on COVID fatigue. We’re all tired. We simply didn’t choose to take it out on other innocent folks, using other people’s neighbourhoods as a release valve. 

Most of us understand that, while sometimes inadequate, contradictory, convoluted and involving a whole lot of sometimes unnecessary flip-flopping, government mandates were and continue to be in response to a virus that’s constantly mutating and has rapidly increased in transmissibility. None of the measures enacted are perfect solutions and some have been highly questionable, but they have always been in response to an often unpredictable situation, the likes of which no current politician or public health official has ever lived through before. Canadians are free to criticize, question and protest them, but is aligning yourself with people issuing death threats against democratically elected leaders really the way to be heard? 

What conspiracy theorists and science sceptics constantly refer to as disinformation or lies is the scientific community constantly adjusting to rapidly changing information and government officials responding in kind as they try to find that delicate balance between keeping people alive and safe and trying to maintain a functioning economy and a society that doesn’t go full-on Lord of the Flies on each other. 

It’s time we started seeing conspiracy theories as a mental health crisis because it’s becoming clear that some people — whether because of mistrust of science, media, or political leaders — have become easy prey for certain groups whose only goal is disruption and chaos. Numerous studies appear to point to the connection between people prone to uncertainty and anxiety and an increased likelihood of believing conspiracy theories as a way of reasserting control over what is, in essence, a very uncontrollable situation. In other words, if you already have a (sometimes, rightful) distrust of government or the medical community, and lack media literacy or critical thinking skills, you become much more vulnerable to outlandish and unsubstantiated theories that seek to make sense of a world that scares you. Throw in Facebook algorithms and we’re done for.

Loud as they may be, however, convoy members represent a small minority. Most Canadians express high levels of support for vaccine mandates and most COVID measures by federal and provincial governments to mitigate death and illness.  

Facts don’t care about our feelings

A funeral for a man who died of COVID-19 in Malden, Massachusetts.

Just because we’re tired doesn’t mean we get to pretend that it’s all over. Because it’s not over. It’s far from over. And reality doesn’t care about our frustration or fatigue. A total of 815 Canadians died from COVID in the past five days alone. Two years in, we may have become numb to these numbers, but those figures we see flash by daily represent real people with real lives, and the families and friends mourning them. We’re closing in on 35,000 deaths in Canada alone from this virus. The rate of transmission is currently so high with Omicron that many governments have given up on even reporting COVID cases accurately, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. We’re still very much trying to navigate our way out of them. 

The U.S. death toll from COVID hit 900,000 this past Friday, less than two months after eclipsing 800,000. Are these the signs of a waning pandemic? A whopping 100,000 Americans have died from the virus since Jan. 1. Imagine if the entire population of Kingston or Trois-Rivières was wiped out in a matter of 39 days — that’s how many people we’re talking about. 

Daily hospitalizations continue to hover around 9,000 in Canada, a country whose healthcare system we’ve — by now — realized is badly crippled by decades of budget cuts and staff shortages. In Quebec, and across Canada, we’ve seen an alarming spike in pediatric COVID hospitalizations. Omicron may appear less severe than Delta, but the reality is it’s likely just as dangerous for unvaccinated people. Allowing it to spread without care while so much of the world remains unvaccinated means we’re allowing more opportunities for it to mutate and create new variants that not only endanger everyone but also prolong this constant yo-yo of opening and closing that has frustrated us all. Politicians now announcing that it’s time to “live with the virus” — as if COVID has suddenly become a minor risk, while offering up no significant investments in healthcare or additional safety measures like ventilation in schools — leaves many of our co-citizens in a very vulnerable position. We have abdicated our responsibility to them because we’re “tired.”

Finally, comparing what other countries are doing with regards to mandates and restrictions offers little insight since the countries easing restrictions are usually the ones best equipped to handle a possible surge in hospitalizations. This very basic understanding of mitigation efforts vs. hospital capacity seems to completely go over the heads of protesters who decided that we should stop our collective efforts to protect the most vulnerable during a global pandemic just because they’ve had enough. They should ask people waiting for life-saving surgeries amidst major hospital backlogs due to COVID how fatigued they are.

Public health measures will eventually be reduced, and probably sooner rather than later, and it will have little to do with a bunch of angry, often incoherent, entitled people deciding it was time to ease them. But, even then, very little will have changed. Right now, the virus is still here and still very lethal, and no amount of angry protesting can change that reality. If I could honk away a pandemic, I would have started blasting an air horn two years ago. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.