Among the many issues that have challenged Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government’s pandemic response are the dangerous and dangerously misinformed gatherings of anti-mask, anti-pandemic-restriction protesters.
These events are not numerous, and they are not particularly well attended. But when you’re living in the eye of a COVID-19 hurricane, such protests are problematic from both a practical and a symbolic perspective. They are also confounding when it comes to devising an appropriate response.
So far, Premier Brian Pallister has mostly used stern lectures to dissuade Manitobans from gathering en masse to protest pandemic restrictions, including frequent mentions of the order that makes non-medical masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces. Mr. Pallister took this approach again on Thursday, when he warned citizens against attending any of the protests that are reportedly planned for this weekend.
Mr. Pallister asked would-be protesters to consider how they would feel if, a month after the gathering, they learned they had infected someone they know with COVID-19. That is a reasonable question to ask reasonable people, but unfortunately it’s the wrong question to pose to people who are raging against pandemic restrictions.
These are individuals who, based on their behaviour, appear to have rejected the entire scientific foundation of the pandemic. They apparently do not believe the novel coronavirus poses a unique or elevated threat. And even if it does, they seem not to believe non-medical masks or social distancing make any difference. Normal, rational arguments will not register with those whose behaviour indicates they have adopted an irrational philosophy.
If concerted finger-wagging and a slightly raised voice is not the right approach, then what is the Pallister government to do?
Mr. Pallister has also threatened organizers and attendees with fines. In some instances involving high-profile individuals connected to these events, a few tickets have actually been handed out. But in broader terms, this is not a practical approach for controlling mass gatherings.
The premier’s suggestion that tickets could be handed out to the owners of vehicles parked in the vicinity of the protests is, frankly, nonsensical. He has tried to draw a parallel with photo radar, which sees registered owners fined if their vehicle is caught speeding or running a red light, regardless of who is driving. In the protest scenario, however, parking near a protest is not an offence. It seems unlikely that tickets issued blindly on that basis would go unchallenged.
Public–health officials need to work closely with law enforcement to come up with creative, non–confrontational strategies to discourage these gatherings from taking place.
It should be acknowledged that an overreaction to the threat posed by the protests could backfire. Manitobans have, for the most part, ignored these events and the groups that have organized them. A forceful response, perhaps sparking a violent confrontation, might only serve to give these groups more profile than they are due.
And yet, more needs to be done. Public-health officials need to work closely with law enforcement to come up with creative, non-confrontational strategies to discourage these gatherings from taking place, or to disperse them before they reach sufficient numbers to pose a greater threat to public health or public peace.
If tickets are to be handed out, the task must be undertaken by legitimate law-enforcement personnel; private security guards have neither the training nor the authority to demand identification or detain individuals.
These unnecessary and potentially harmful events demand a more focused and effective enforcement strategy. Given Manitoba’s still-rising COVID-19 numbers, threats and lectures are not the necessary tools to get the job done.