Elected officials should lean heavily on scientific evidence and advice from doctors to maintain the trust of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new public opinion study.
A nationwide survey conducted by York University’s department of disaster and emergency management asked Canadians about the social impacts of the novel coronavirus.
The survey found that 82 per cent of Canadians believe scientific evidence should influence government decisions, while another 78 per cent said advice from doctors should be strongly considered.
Economic considerations placed “a distant third,” according to lead researcher Eric Kennedy, with just 48 per cent of Canadians listing the economy as one of the factors the government should consider. Respondents were allowed to choose up to three answers to the query.
“What they’re sending as a message pretty clearly is this notion that medical doctors and scientific evidence should be driving the response,” said Kennedy, an assistant professor of emergency management at York University.
“That’s a good sign and I think it speaks to the character of the country.”
The survey was completed by 2,029 Canadians between March 20 and April 12.
Promoting science may lead to improved public buy-in
While a strong majority of respondents pointed to scientific evidence and medical advice as the primary factors that should drive government interventions, the responses differed significantly when Canadians were asked what they think is actually driving policy.
Fifty-six per cent said they believe economic considerations are affecting decision making, while 53 per cent said they believe the government is prioritizing scientific evidence and medical advice.
In other words, nearly a third of Canadians (29 per cent) do not believe that science and medical advice are among the top three factors in government decision making, but that those factors ought to be more strongly considered.
With some forms of restrictions expected to continue into the foreseeable future, Kennedy said governments can help ensure public buy-in by stressing that scientific evidence and medical advice are the foundation for their policies, not politics or even the economy.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who came to power on a largely pro-business platform, has said he will wait for “the green light” from chief medical officer Dr. David Williams before restarting the economy.
“You just can’t flick the lights on,” Ford said on Monday, while citing polling that jobs and the economy are, in fact, the top priority for Ontarians.
“I just want to make sure we do it properly, cautiously and not just jump into this and open up the floodgates,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible.”
New challenges in the summer
The York University study also found what Kennedy calls “broad public support” for existing interventions, but he noted that frustrations may emerge as the pandemic wears on.
The summer, he said, could pose new challenges as people become increasingly eager to leave their homes and spend time outdoors.
York University plans to continue distributing the survey and conducting interviews to gauge how the public’s perception of the crisis evolves.
“The big thing we’ll be looking for is how the frustrations ebb and flow over the months ahead,” Kennedy said.
Other findings of the survey include:
94 per cent agreed that “getting sick with the coronavirus can be serious.”
23 per cent agreed they “would probably get sick with the coronavirus.”
44 per cent reported negative changes to their employment.
96 per cent said they were limiting social gatherings.
9 per cent said the Canadian government is exaggerating the risk of the coronavirus.