Canadians are still strongly adhering to public health guidelines through the COVID-19 pandemic, but report decreases in how important the guidelines are and a collapse in perceived government effectiveness, reveals a McMaster University-led study over the first year of the pandemic.

Researchers surveyed 1,435 community adults on five occasions - April, July and October 2020 and January and April of 2021 – making it one of the few longitudinal studies on attitudes during the pandemic. The respondents were, on average, in their mid-thirties with middle-class income and education.

Senior author James MacKillop said that the study revealed both good news and bad news over time.

“The good news is that people showed high or rapidly increasing compliance with public health guidelines early in the pandemic and those have been sustained,” said MacKillop, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences.

“The bad news is that we saw significant reduction in perceptions of guideline importance and adherence to guidelines over time,” MacKillop continued.

“Furthermore, we saw dramatic negative shifts in public opinion about government effectiveness, with ratings falling through the floor.”

More than 80 per cent of respondents rated the government’s COVID-19 response as effective in early 2020, but this was fully reversed by April 2021, when more than 80 per cent rated it as ineffective. In fact, in the last wave of the survey, the most common response was the lowest possible rating, that the government response was “very ineffective.”

“These data reveal both resolute commitment to safety measures in the large majority of our sample, but also clear evidence of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and disappointment with its overall management,” said MacKillop.

The study did not distinguish between the federal and provincial government and specific reasons for perceived government effectiveness were not measured. 

However, MacKillop noted that the last wave happened during the vaccine rollout in early 2021, which was comparatively slower than the initially speedier American vaccination campaign.

Other potential influences may have been the phasing out of government benefits like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, even as many restrictions remain in place, lack of access to rapid testing, and educational disruptions via shifts to online learning.

MacKillop said the study’s findings reveal the malleability and decline of people’s opinions of the government’s COVID-19 strategy over time, especially with the repeated tightening and loosening of restrictions on social gatherings and leisure activities.

“People are still following the recommendations, but they certainly do not feel good about the government’s pandemic response at this point,” said MacKillop.

The study was published in The Lancet Regional Health - Americas on Feb 17.

External funding for the study was received from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.



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