When Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington Public Health announced a universal masking policy on Friday, Jun. 26, 2020, Kingston’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said complaints quickly began to roll in.
“We’ve had ten emails so far this morning,” Dr. Moore told a press conference on the morning of Monday, Jun 29. “We are getting complaints from civil libertarians across North America. We’re getting Trump supporters emailing us, people from BC. So a lot of emails coming our way.”
Dr. Adele Mercier, a Queen’s University professor from the Department of Philosophy says public officials need to do more to address that opposition, and stop the spread of misinformation.
Over the past two weeks, Dr. Mercier has contacted many of KFL&A’s elected officials, asking them to respond to a public letter from the Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA).
The letter, signed by OCLA Executive Director Joseph Hickey, and OCLA researcher Denis Rancourt, cites articles they say negate the effectiveness of masks for controlling viral transmission.
“If masks were even moderately effective at reducing the risk of infection,” the 11-page letter reads, “then a benefit would have been statistically detected in one or more of the many reliable trials that have already been made.”
The OCLA also called for civil disobedience against mandatory masking on their blog on Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2020.
That this position is being put forward as legitimate and data-driven which is concerning to Mercier.
“I would say that it is a site absolutely chock full of conspiracy theories,” Mercier said. She said a rational, scientific response is necessary to counter “dangerous conspiratorial effects we are witnessing on the OCLA website.”
Local officials respond
Kingston City Councillors Jim Neill, Rob Hutchison, Wayne Hill and Jeff McLaren and North Frontenac Mayor Ron Higgins have all replied to the letter, their answers also available publicly on the OCLA website.
“I’ll defer to and trust the overwhelming opinion of medical professionals over your legal opinions,” Councillor Neill wrote, to which Hill and Higgins echoed their support. McLaren suggested the OCLA had misinterpreted the function of civil liberty, which he said exists to protect, support, enhance and sustain life.
However, in a similar vein to her criticism of the problematic articles calling for citizens to reject mask-wearing, Mercier is concerned that none of the Councillors’ replies include specific and relevant scientific evidence, or a sound argument to refute the anti-mask movement.
“Bill Gates wants to inject us all with microchips,” she joked, referencing a popular online conspiracy theory about the source of COVID-19. “This is what’s going on right now, it’s what’s being said. And politicians are not doing their jobs because they’re effectively fomenting this by not giving the public a good rationale, based in science, for what they are choosing [to implement as policies and protocols].”
In a response directly to emails from Mercier, Mayor Higgins suggested that those who wish to wear masks can find evidence to support it, and those who do not will find evidence to support that, too. He said his constituents seemed to support the decree.
“In my simple approach to this issue,” he said, “I can find no compelling arguments that counter my reasons.” He said that the decision to implement a masking policy was made “based on the best information we had available at the time.”
Mercier replied that she simply wants to see that information. “If one can equally find reasons to justify wearing a mask, as for not wearing a mask, then isn’t the public allowed to know why our leaders have opted for imposing masks?” she asked.
The article has been updated since he shared it, with an editor’s note: “This story was updated on July 11 to include information on why valved masks do not block exhaled droplets.”
“Here is one of about 100 credible articles that you yourself can look up…regarding the use of face masks to assist in the prevention of transmission of COVID-19,” Hill wrote.
Hill expressed dismay that Mercier was adamant about the inclusion of evidence-based studies to prove the effectiveness of masks. “I sure hope you’re not in a position to influence our young people. You are in fact the perfect example of the kind of person who uses their bona fides to instill doubt in the integrity of institutions such as public health — stirring up conspiracy theories as you go.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he continued. “This is no example of critical examination of an issue — it is an example of a person who craves recognition regardless of the cost. Please do not contact me again.”
“I agree with what you’re saying, just tell me why you’re saying it”
KFL&A Public Health’s FAQ on its universal masking policy explains that “face coverings are an inexpensive, acceptable, and non-invasive measure to help control the spread of COVID-19,” and does not currently provide any links to scientific articles.
The full text of Dr. Moore’s decree does mention that accumulating epidemiological evidence and expert opinions support a universal masking policy, but no articles are referenced.
Mercier said she is still waiting for answers. “I am asking them ‘Why do you think we should wear masks?’ The answer ‘because I think they work,’ with respect, is not a rational reason to force everybody to wear a mask,” she said. The WHO has performed a similar policy reversal during the pandemic she notes, and she suspects many medical experts are simply following their lead.
Mercier adds that she is not opposed to the mask order itself. “I agree with what you’re saying, just tell me why you’re saying it,” she said.
“I’m a philosopher,” Mercier said. “I’m interested in knowledge and how people form opinions. I’m interested in society. I’m interested in the fact that there’s a lot of fear right now. A lot of very bad people are taking advantage of this fear for very nefarious purposes. Just look south,” she said.
Dr. Moore noted in his press conference on Friday, Jun. 26 that there will always be five to 10 per cent of the community that won’t agree with any action by government to mandate issues. But, in the face of this outbreak, he said, “we feel it is a prudent, proportional and reasonable thing to do.”
“Governance by decree, rather than by informed rational discussion, stokes dangerous conspiracy theories,” Mercier said. “In case you haven’t noticed, these currently abound. The Kingston public is intelligent and educated, and deserves rational answers to rational questions.”
Note: The Kingstonist emailed KFL&A Public Health on Thursday, Jul. 2 to find out how many letters of opposition to the masking policy had been received, their contents and/or the appealing organizations. The Communications department for KFL&A Public Health declined the request on Friday, Jul. 3.
“We are unable to share these communications (text messages, emails, phone calls),” wrote Suzette Taggart, Communications Manager for KFL&A Public Health, “and we do not have an exact count of how many communications that have been received by our agency.” Taggart also noted that KFL&A Public Health’s “priority to address any criticism will be to continue to provide information and education around these public health measures, that are in place to protect the health of our community.”