Mixed messages, frustration with lockdowns fuel some skepticism about pandemic

Skepticism about the coronavirus pandemic is not widespread, but psychologists say there are several reasons some people have doubts - including inconsistent messaging about public health measures and frustration with prolonged shutdowns of the economy.

Science around coronavirus is still in flux and that has left some frustrated and skeptical, say experts

A protester at Queen's Park in Toronto in April holds a sign referencing the unfounded theory that COVID stands for Certificate of Vaccination Identification. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has explained that COVID-19 is, in fact, an abbreviation of 'coronavirus disease 2019,' with 'CO' standing for 'corona,' 'VI' for 'virus,' and 'D' for disease. (Arindam Shivaani/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, there have been more than 4.4 million globally confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 300,000 deaths connected to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Yet, there are some — a small minority — who contest the fact that there is a deadly, infectious disease spreading around the planet or who object to global efforts to try to minimize the spread and the casualties.

Some have even taken to protesting against some of the lockdown measures.

Experts say there are several reasons that account for skepticism about the pandemic, including:

  • Mounting frustration as shutdowns continue;
  • The breakdown of trust in government over issues such as changes in mask policy;
  • A resistance to being told what to do;
  • Gaps in a skill psychologists call cognitive sophistication, which helps people discern what's true or false.

While some parallels can be drawn between doubts about the current pandemic and the questioning of anthropogenic climate change or the efficacy of vaccinations, one large difference is that the science around the pandemic is still emerging, said Timothy Caulfied, a Canada Research Chair in health and law policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

"It is different in that here, we have science that is still in flux," he said. "You have public health agencies that are trying to do their best with science that is still emerging." 

Frustration with an almost two-month-long lockdown that has left many people in dire financial straits has prompted some to protest, urging a reopening of the economy. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

And when officials offer differing advice, as happened when public health and government representatives initially said masks didn't need to be worn by the general public and then later suggested it might not hurt to don them in public, it could erode trust in government, Caulfield said.

Risa Horowitz, a visual and media artist and associate professor in visual arts at the University of Regina, said the mixed messages are coming from all sides, not just the government.

"I have been frustrated by the mixed messaging released by official channels about the use of masks by the general public during the pandemic," she said. "The messaging has shifted a lot since January and is still divergent across channels."

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'This is dizzying'

First, said Horowitz, the public was advised to keep N95 masks for front-line workers and only wear masks if they were ill or caring for someone who was sick.

Then the message shifted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health agencies recommending cloth face coverings for everyone out in public.

Health Canada currently advises that homemade face coverings have not been proven to protect against the virus but can be an additional measure to prevent one's respiratory droplets from spreading to others.

The World Health Organization clarified last month that medical masks should be reserved for health-care workers.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Dr. Horacio Arruda, the director of public health forQuebec, wear homemade masks as they walk with media in Montreal. Shifting messages about whether or not the public should wear masks has fuelled confusion and skepticism. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

"This is dizzying, and it leads not only to frustration but also to mistrust," said Horowitz. "If the experts we rely on to inform us are not straightforward about the advice offered and the reasons why, people like me end up feeling infantilized and skeptical about all advice given."

Adding to the frustration has been the devastating impact of the economic fallout from the shutdown of businesses and institutions. Canada lost close to two million jobs in April alone and its economy is predicted to shrink by 6.2 per cent this year.

Sorting fact from falsehoods

Caulfield, who studies misinformation and disinformation, said there is trust in science generally but that some people may be using the uncertainty in some aspects of the research to support their position as their frustration mounts with the coronavirus response.

But there's another reason why some people might believe unproven theories about the origins or spread of the virus or behave in ways that put them at risk, such as attending a protest at a time when health authorities are telling people not to congregate.

It relates to something psychologists call cognitive sophistication — or the ability to think rationally about an issue, says Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Regina.

"It's not a basis of intelligence," Pennycook said of the term. "There are just some people who are just better at figuring out what's true or false."

Shifting messaging around some of the measures to prevent spread of the virus has left some questioning the public health guidance. Here, protesters opposed to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order demonstrate outside the the state capitol in Lansing. (Matthew Dae Smith /Lansing State Journal/The Associated Press)

There are many factors that come into play when discussing cognitive sophistication: how receptive you are to information presented to you; whether or not you question your intuition; how well you understand probabilities; and how knowledgeable you are about some of the underlying scientific principles.

"You can think about it as having a kind of mental toolbox that can be used to help discern between what's true and false in the world," said Pennycook, who wrote a 2015 paper on the ability to detect falsehoods.

It's those tools that help make people distrustful of theories that seem to fly in the face of common sense or that have been debunked by scientists, such as the claim that putting pepper in soup or injecting disinfectant will stave off COVID-19. 

Interpreting the numbers

Caulfield said one of the more challenging things in the fight against misinformation is "scienceploitation," where people peddling pseudoscience use real scientific terms that can lend more credibility to advice. 

"It becomes very difficult for the public to tease out what's real and what's not real when you're talking about [things like] the microbiome, and you're talking about quantum physics."

Numeracy and how people process numbers, which is not always rationally, also factors into how facts about the pandemic are interpreted.

"We didn't evolve to immediately comprehend quantities," said Pennycook.

For example, in 2004, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Indonesia claimed more than 200,000 lives. It was covered worldwide and elicited heartfelt responses and assistance from governments and people around the globe.

The global death toll from the pandemic has surpassed 300,000 but may not hit a nerve in the same manner among those not directly impacted.

"If this was a natural disaster you would be completely distraught," Pennycook said. 

Numbers also come into play in a different way, he said. For example, if there are predictions that millions of people are going to die from COVID-19 and instead it turns out to be hundreds of thousands, some people might reframe that to mean the virus is not as serious as we initially thought when in fact it still poses a significant risk.

Quebec Premier François Legault shows a graphic relating to COVID-19 deaths during a news conference on April 28. When projections don't turn out exactly as predicted, some people can interpret that as a sign the virus was never that serious to begin with, say some experts. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The vocabulary of war

Something else to consider is the language used to describe either the virus itself — SARS-CoV2 — or the pandemic. 

"The metaphors that are being used are really violent, and they're very war-like, and they bring up the idea of threat and uncertainty," said Mehrgol Tiv, a PhD candidate in the department of psychology at McGill University in Montreal. 

Terms such as "invisible enemy" or "war" against the virus can make people uneasy, said Tiv.

"It instills a feeling of doom and dread and uneasiness, and some sense of uncertainty as well," she said. "And from the psychological perspective, when people are in situations of uncertainty and fear, there are different things that are driving their behaviours and decision-making processes."

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Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at

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