Manitoba in 'uphill battle' as COVID-19 restrictions drag on, people grow weary: health experts

Manitoba is engaged in a struggle to convince people to keep following public health orders, as the code red restrictions drag into their ninth week, and some individuals begin to openly defy them.

'We're all tired. We're frustrated. It's been a long time,' says U of Manitoba's Michelle Driedger

A sign in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg last spring encourages visitors to practise physical distancing. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba is engaged in a struggle to get people to keep following public health orders as the code red restrictions drag into their ninth week and some individuals begin to openly defy them.

"I think public health is working against an uphill battle at this point," said Michelle Driedger, a University of Manitoba professor who specializes in public health risk communication.

"We're all tired. We're frustrated. It's been a long time [with the restrictions in place]."

For the most part, Manitobans have been following the message. But people who are abiding by the rules are getting frustrated too — by those now flouting them.

"I think that's what makes it really difficult for those people who have been buckling down and making the sacrifices — when you have others who have decided, 'Well, it's not a big deal, I'm just going to get together with my friends,'" Driedger said.

"It's those individual decisions that we're seeing right now in terms of consequences," like new COVID-19 cases.

Michelle Driedger is a professor in the department of community health sciences at the U of M. Her areas of study include health risk communication and risk perception. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

Manitoba recently announced current restrictions will stay in place until at least Jan. 22, with case numbers stubbornly high after holiday gatherings. Those restrictions, which came into effect in November, require non-essential businesses to close and prohibit virtually all social gatherings in homes.

On Monday, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province had identified 538 COVID-19 cases linked to in-person holiday gatherings. Those cases had 2,879 close contacts, he said.

The province did, however, launch an online survey Friday to gauge public perspective on the risk of contracting COVID-19, vaccination, and how comfortable people are with easing some restrictions, and possibly increasing gathering sizes.

Roussin noted that any move to that end will be "very cautious and slow."

The number of holiday-related cases doesn't surprise Driedger. She and her colleagues conducted focus groups in cities, including Winnipeg, in December to see how people intended to react over Christmas.

Many planned to drastically alter their approach — choosing Zoom calls and gift drop-offs instead of in-person gatherings — but there were a number of outliers. One man intended to visit his COVID-positive parents, provided they had recovered by that point, Driedger said.

He's an example of a growing number of people who simply no longer want to make the sacrifices required by the public health orders, she said.

A Winnipeg tattoo shop owner was fined Monday by COVID-19 enforcement officials after he opened his business in spite of the orders.

Phil McLellan, owner of The Parlor Tattoos on Main Street, told CBC News the fine wouldn't stop him from welcoming customers again on Tuesday. 

Keeping the shop closed is no longer an option for him as a business owner and a provider for his family of six, he said.

As a result, McLellan was hit with a second fine on Wednesday.

Increasing anxiety

Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research, understands the frustration.

"The impact of this pandemic on economic well-being and social well-being is profound," she said.

Even if the percentage of Canadians infected with COVID-19 is relatively small, the number who have experienced social or economic effects, or both, "is probably near to 100 per cent on some level," said Carr.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says the impact of the pandemic on economic and social well-being is profound. (Charlotte Falck)

The longer an uncertain situation continues, the more anxious people become — "and the more challenging it is for our coping skills," she said.

"So it's understandable that people are not just feeling frustrated, but for those people that run businesses, that they're barely holding on and feeling like we need an end to this."

Until there is better control over COVID-19, though, we need to stay the course, Carr said.

"We have been told over and over that this virus can only spread if we give it the opportunity to spread. And the challenge with this virus is this asymptomatic ability to spread," she said.

"So we have to continue to do our part."

Province must do better

The rule-breakers need to realize they're to blame for the prolonged restrictions, Driedger said.

"If we're going to have continued spread, we're going to be constantly put in these situations of lockdown. I know it's tough, but we have to continue to buckle down for a while longer so we can open up safely," she said.

"And we need to remember, the cases that Dr. Roussin talks about— these are people.

"We need to have a closer connection to those individuals who are actually suffering with COVID to realize that it's not just something that is a mild form of illness."

The province needs to do its part, too, said Carr, and must better communicate the purpose of the restrictions and plans for vaccinations.

Those messages also need to be delivered with a little bit of hope, revealing where there may be "opportunities for opening and supporting more economic and social well-being," she said.

'A social contract'

Driedger echoes those sentiments.

"We're in a social contract here. Government and public health want citizens to step up and make the sacrifices that need to be made in order to keep case rates low, but what is the province doing? What information are we being given?"

The fact no director has yet been hired yet to oversee the province's immunization program leaves people disheartened, Driedger said.

"There are a lot of things that are part of this social contract that we also need government to honour," she said, noting it is extremely damaging to that contract to see elected officials and political staff travelling over the holidays, while telling others to stay home.

"That does not model the kind of behaviour that you want citizens to follow."

While Carr appreciates the province's efforts to engage the community in a survey, she has misgivings about using that approach for a decision as important as reopening the economy.

"Saying to community members, 'Part of the way we're making those decisions are based on your input to a survey' could actually confuse people who are saying, 'Wait a second, I thought this was a science-based approach to healthy public policy," she said.

"And there will always be a bias of those who participate in any survey. Many of us will respond in an emotional way because we're tired."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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