Science Must Guide Pandemic Response: Canadians

A new public opinion study shows Canadians overwhelmingly want medical science driving government policymaking around COVID-19.


As Canadian cities from coast-to-coast remain locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing of a phased reopening remains unclear. There are certainly many elements to consider, but what do Canadians think should be the top guiding factors in how the government makes these decisions?

A new public opinion study shows that Canadians overwhelmingly favour scientific evidence (82 percent) and advice from medical doctors (78 percent) as the top two elements that should influence government decision making. Economic considerations came in at a distant third (48 percent). Notably, respondents were allowed to choose up to three choices for their top priorities.

International influences, minimizing disruption to normal life, public opinion, and political considerations round out the rest of the list, but all came in under 20 percent.

These attitudes come despite many being hit hard by unpaid leave, reduced hours, or layoffs; over a quarter of participants responded that a 14-day self isolation period would trigger cash flow problems including inability to afford basic costs like rent or groceries.

The Canadian COVID-19 Social Impacts Survey was conducted by researchers at York University who polled households across the country by mail. Their questions probed risk perceptions, trust, and the personal impact of COVID-19. The results are based on 2,029 responses to the survey.

When asked which three factors participants believed were actually influencing government decisions, there was a disconnect between their ideals and their perceptions of reality. Economic considerations slid into first place (56 percent), with scientific evidence and advice from medical doctors tying for a close second (53 percent each).

Put another way, almost third of Canadians who prefer for the government to lean most heavily on scientific evidence and medical advice do not believe these factors rank in the top three actual influences on decision making.

The overwhelming majority of Canadians (94 percent) either agree or strongly agree that catching COVID-19 can be serious. However, only 23 percent believe that they are likely to become sick. This shows that most are more concerned for the general risks to other people in their communities than they are about their personal risk.

But they also believe that the risks being communicated by the government are not an exaggeration (82%). Between 80-84 percent of participants strongly favour the collective actions designed to flatten the curve, like canceling public events, closing places of worship and schools, encouraging people to stay home, and mandatory home isolation.

The phased reopening of the economy needs to be a careful one to prevent a second wave of infections from wiping out all the benefits of our sacrifices to date. Continuing to emphasize the evidence behind government decisions could go a long way towards helping citizens buy in to the measures needed to protect our communities.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.