COVID denialism and the Alberta context

Originally published on Jan. 16, 2021 at CBC Calgary.

In the summer, with half of Memorial Drive in Calgary shut down to traffic, a group of protesters set up near the Peace Bridge to draw attention to a bewildering array of grievances. One sign attacked Justin Trudeau, another warned of 5G networks, some supported oil and gas, while others cautioned against “chemtrails.”

But the main thrust of the gathering was to oppose COVID-19 restrictions, masks and vaccines. 

As the pandemic dragged on, that group morphed and found new stomping grounds in front of Calgary City Hall. Coalescing around the banner of “freedom,” they railed against government COVID-19 lockdowns, mask laws and public health measures. They marched through downtown Calgary with signs that proclaimed them lions, not sheep. 

Alternative medicine hippies strode alongside yellow vesters in what at first seemed an odd countercultural pairing but is a natural alliance based on a shared distrust of governments, health mandates, corporations and more. 

The reason for their unity lies deep in our evolutionary history and the brute force of societal shifts that are shaking civilizational foundations. 

Those forces have conspired to make Alberta a prime breeding ground for the kind of conspiratorial thinking on display, which pulls nuggets of truth from the flurry of science in real time and contorts it into a narrative of oppression. It is a near-perfect storm for the small minority caught up in it.

The question is: how did they find themselves in its path?

How we’re wired

Humans have evolved to be really good at fitting into groups. Our malleable brains can adapt beliefs in order to thrive within our given tribe. But that sort of cognitive wiring can lead us astray.

Adrian Bardon, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and the author of The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics and Religion, has obviously spent some time thinking about how these sorts of movements come to be. 

Writing in The Conversation, he says although the phenomena of denialism is “many and varied,” the story behind it is “quite simple.”

“Human cognition is inseparable from the unconscious emotional responses that go with it,” he writes. 

“Under the right conditions, universal human traits like in-group favouritism, existential anxiety and a desire for stability and control combine into a toxic, system-justifying identity politics.”

It’s why protesters against Trudeau and 5G and chemtrails and, and, and … all came to march under the same banner, protesting public health measures supported by growing scientific consensus. 

Speaking to CBC News, Bardon specifically breaks down the current storm over pandemic responses and says the combination of economic threats, politicization by elites and the visual/visceral effect of masks is a fearsome combination for fuelling science denialism and ideological polarization.

“It starts with the lack of trust, and then the reasons for the lack of trust comes next, and then you’re already in an ideological community,” he says. 

“And then that explains why your community is all of one voice on what the story is, but this story is made up. The reaction comes first, and then you rationalize the reaction.”

He says covering faces interferes with one of the most fundamental ways we interpret other people, but creates a new signal. 

“At this point, after the politicization of it, not wearing a mask is immediately understood by the mask-wearing people to be a statement, and wearing the mask is an accusation. And it creates this incredibly toxic environment,” he says.

There’s also no better metaphor for a muzzle than something really darn close to a muzzle. 

With the science around COVID-19 evolving in real time and government’s struggling to keep up and keep track, the stage is set for our minds to fill in the gaps. 

The psychology

Another person who’s spent some time thinking about the current moment is Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics. 

Taylor says one major issue is the lack of scientific literacy in the world and the belief by many that “science is really no different from opinion.”

Among those of a conspiratorial nature, there is also often an urge to feel special, he says, and possessing what you believe to be secret knowledge can be a big boost. 

“It’s going to feed your self-esteem,” says Taylor.

Quirks and Quarks16:27Why Conspiracy theorists are more likely to see patterns in a painting like thisBelief in conspiracy theories based in ‘illusory pattern perception’ 16:27

It works in tandem with a phenomenon known as psychological reactance, which Taylor describes as a “kind of allergic reaction to being told what to do.”

“So if I came up to a person like that, and started to explain why I thought masks were effective, two things would happen,” says Taylor. 

“First, they would get very angry, and second, they would start to automatically generate reasons for themselves as to why masks are ineffective. So my strategy would backfire if I tried to directly confront them.”

That, along with the fact that the vast majority of people support wearing masks, is why Taylor doesn’t think governments should mandate their use. 

Adding to the mix are the sometimes confusing debates and changing recommendations about public health that have allowed a wide opening for doubters and reactionaries. 

All of those factors combine to make Alberta prime breeding ground for COVID denialism. 

The Alberta scene

The first thing to note is that the protests against lockdowns and masks in Alberta are small. This does not represent the majority. 

But still, there is a vocal core group that isn’t going to go away and that has at points drawn bigger crowds than many expected. Recent polling, too, has suggested Albertans are the least likely Canadians to consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible, if at all. 

Bardon notes that denial of science rears its head pretty forcefully when the economy is threatened — something that has been fraying nerves in Alberta long before the pandemic brought government shutdowns.

There is anxiety about income, about empty office towers in Calgary, about the continued existence of the oil and gas industry that once seemed a limitless well of wealth.

The economic powerhouse of Canada is sputtering and many look at a sort of global network of elites and their war on global warming as a major factor in its demise. Some of the same protesters that were out in yellow vests calling Trudeau a traitor while sporting “I Love Alberta Oil and Gas” sweaters are now out calling for an end to lockdowns as another elite attack. 

Many in the province feel powerless in the face of global forces that have battered their world, and that leads them to reach for the comforts of a group and a belief system that nourishes them. 

When Trudeau was re-elected in 2019, Albertans had voted in droves for the Conservative opposition and the reaction to the minority government was angry. 

Separatists were emboldened and started drawing more attention and crowds, attempting to walk off with a province because they disagreed with the outcome of a democractic election. 

Sprinkle in some good old-fashioned Alberta myth-making, like the maverick spirit, egalitarianism and the belief that Albertans share a full-throttled libertarian-tinged conservatism, and the recipe is nearly complete. 

With the addition of a provincial government that has preached personal responsibility, provided mixed messages, resisted some health measures and recently saw MLAs and cabinet ministers ignore the government’s own travel advice, the meal is cooked. 

It’s not a stretch to see why many in the province feel left behind, without agency. That’s something Bardon says is the very core of anxiety. 

“You feel anxious, and then you look for something to project that on.… Conspiracy theorists latch on to the conspiracy they just ran across, and if your community already has some preconceived notions as to what the threat is out there, you latch on to that,” he says. 

If you give yourself a story, it gives back.

That’s not the way some in the protests see it, though. 

Freedom walker

Jake Eskesen is an organizer with Freedom Walk Calgary, which recently branched off from Walk for Freedom over an internal dispute.

Speaking just before Christmas, he says the weekly protests are about, well, freedom. 

“We’re standing, basically for our constitutional rights, which are currently being infringed upon by the government,” says Eskesen, who previously organized events for what he calls the Alberta independence movement.

Personally, he doesn’t think the COVID-19 statistics — including death rates and hospitalizations — justify the measures being taken by governments to restrict freedoms and the ability of people to earn a living. 

He gets his information from places like Post Millennial and The Rebel and also directly from Alberta Health Services statistics, while largely shunning mainstream news which he feels is trying to sell one narrow narrative. The government, he says, is the enemy.

Eskesen possesses a complete certainty that his views are correct, while questioning every study, every public health recommendation, the way COVID tests are conducted and more. 

He, like 20 per cent of Alberta respondents to a recent poll, says he would not get the vaccine until he’s convinced it’s safe — and that would take a lot, he says. 

In short, Eskesen has a high threshold for science to convince him that the virus is serious and the measures in place help fight it are worthwhile. Everywhere he looks he sees a lack of the kind of evidence he would need to change his mind even if his own convictions are based on less — and often on misinformation or misinterpretation.

Yet he acknowledges that everyone pre-forms opinions and that they’re “looking for information to support it.” He says it’s important to step back and honestly ask yourself whether bias is getting in the way of clearly understanding an issue. 

So does he ever worry that maybe he’s wrong and his actions are putting other people in harm’s way?

“No. No, not at all.”

The world of narratives

We live now, for better or for worse, in a world of narratives. Storylines that carry us in their wake in a way that has never existed before, at least not to this extent. 

Information overload, anxiety, rapidly changing technologies and societies have left people clambering for support and anchors. For answers to those empty pits in their stomachs and relief from constricted chests. 

The more complex the world becomes, the more our prehistoric cerebral architecture kicks in, forcing our flexible thought processes into groupthink of one kind or another and further erecting barriers to thinking that threatens it. 

We see the results in some dramatic ways, like the storming of the U.S. Capitol building last week. But also in smaller ways like the weekly marches through downtown Calgary. 

But that’s not to say it’s all based on a lie, even if much of it is. 

The official narrative is something that should never be considered sacrosanct, but neither should some of its conspiracy-laden counterparts. 

So although COVID tests do, indeed, test for COVID, and there is a scientific consensus around masks and restrictions, there are still questions to be asked and answered. 

There’s no doubt small businesses and the people who own them and depend on them for incomes are suffering. Shutdowns have been painful. 

And then there’s the question of government making inroads into our daily lives. 

“Honestly, with the governments’ track record, I have a very hard time believing that once the vaccines are rolled out that they will then relinquish a lot of these powers,” says Eskesen.

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