Manitoba needs to get clear on restrictions and release modelling data, public health experts say

Kristen Gall says she’s happy to follow Manitoba’s ever-changing public health restrictions. It’s just that these latest ones don’t make much sense. 

“It’s honestly frustrating more than anything else. Because for a while there I was allowed to have a friend over,” she said.

Gall was having a physically distanced picnic with a friend in Assiniboine Park earlier this week, something that’s allowed under current pandemic health orders. But if they were in a backyard, that would break the rules.

Right now in Manitoba, you aren’t allowed visitors on your property. But up to 10 people can gather in an outdoor public place, and four people from four different households can sit on a patio together for a beer.

“That’s what’s keeping me away from patios,” Gall said. “Lots of people without masks on, all in the same place.”

That confusion over COVID-19 restrictions, coupled with a lack of explanation on those rules, can lead to public disconnect and distrust, according to Michelle Driedger, an expert in public health risk communication and a professor at the University of Manitoba.

“When it doesn’t make sense, then people start to wonder, ‘Well, what’s the point of even following the recommendations that are being provided?'” she said.

“Of course, we can’t afford to have people not paying attention to what the public health recommendations are. We’re at a very, very critical juncture in Manitoba.”

Research shows when the public feels like information is being withheld, it tends to bring out the worst in us— and that can mean a disregard for important public health measures, she said.

‘Astounding lack of transparency’ from officials: expert

The Manitoba government constantly contradicts itself and creates what appears to be arbitrary rules, according to Souradet Shaw, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.

Shaw points to the decision to keep schools open while refusing to prioritize teachers for vaccines.

“There’s an astounding lack of transparency when it comes to decision making, alongside this almost go-to reflex by some members of the province: There’s always blame, deflection or dismissiveness [toward] legitimate questions,” Shaw said.

One of the biggest examples of this is Manitoba’s refusal to release its modelling data, he said. Those numbers would help show the public what would happen in the worst- and best-case scenarios based on different restrictions.

“This is an incredible opportunity for them to speak rationally to choices that they’ve made and sort of level with the public to say, well, you know, if we keep things the way they are, then this is what the world is going to look like if we close down hard.”

Driedger and Shaw say British Columbia has set the example: Public Health and political leadership side-by-side, releasing modelling information to the public, and explaining their rationale for changing restrictions. It’s what Manitobans deserve too, Shaw said.

“I think the province just needs to really level with us and treat us as adults,” he said.

Vancouverites enjoy warm weather physically distant in April 2021. B.C. has regularly released its COVID-19 modelling data to the public, something experts in Manitoba say helps get public buy-in on restrictions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Only province to report tickets weekly: spokesperson

A spokesperson for premier Brian Pallister said the province has spent more than $2 million speaking with Manitobans directly in the pandemic, through ad campaigns, public surveys, industry panels and regular press conferences.

“It is important to remember that, at every step of the way throughout this pandemic, we have endeavoured to reach out directly to Manitobans to get their input and feedback on measures and public health orders designed to protect Manitobans and our health care system,” spokesperson Olivia Billson in an email statement to CBC News.

Billson also pointed out that Manitoba is the only province that publicly reports how many tickets it issues every week for people who violate public health orders.

Public health experts say contradictory rules are hindering the province’s ability to fight the pandemic. 2:23