OPINION: Protesting is a right, but this is not the right time

by | Apr 28, 2020 | Opinion

Alison Gallagher

Ontario’s state of emergency has now been in place for more than a month, and many people are understandably anxious about the state of our communities and about how they are going to make ends meet.

I was laid off from my part-time retail job when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, and with many internship opportunities being cancelled, I often worry about what my job prospects might be after graduation.

With the ongoing border closure between Canada and the United States, I worry about being separated from my immediate family until further notice and not knowing if I could go to be with them should any of them get sick.

I know many people share these fears, and I am happy to see people for the most part listening to the advice of public health officials and doing what is necessary to keep themselves and others safe.

However, on April 25, a group of around 200 people in Toronto chose to defy recommendations and gather at Queen’s Park to protest the Ontario government, demanding businesses and other services to be reopened immediately.

This was the first Canadian instance of what is being called the “Reopen” movement, which has prompted a series of protests throughout the United States since mid-April, with many declaring new COVID-19 regulations are impeding on their personal freedom.

Protesters demand the removal of the provincial COVID-19 restrictions outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto on April 25, 2020. Now is not the right time to challenge medical restrictions designed to stop the spread of the potentially deadly disease. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

As much as these restrictions can hurt people’s livelihoods, reopening businesses and services before we have a consistent decline in the amount of cases would only work to undo any progress, and the protests themselves only put the participants in danger of contracting or spreading the virus even further.

Until there is widespread access to testing, or a vaccine is developed, business closures and social distancing are a way for us to have some element of control in this uncertain time, and we can look to our history to see their importance.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) analyzed the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions in 43 U.S. cities in a 24-week period during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

This study found cities that implemented interventions such as school closures, bans on public gatherings and isolation or quarantine earlier and sustained them for a longer period of time had a significant reduction in mortality rates when compared cities that enforced these measures later.

Most notably, in a comparison between New York City and Pittsburg, New York City enacted isolation procedures quickly while Pittsburg enacted measures much later and inconsistently. As a result, New York’s mortality rate in the studied time period was 452 deaths per 100,000 people, Pittsburg’s was 807 deaths per 100,000.

While our circumstances today are drastically different to what they were 100 years ago, the enactment of closures and social distancing are legitimate ways to ensure that the spread of the virus slows down.

And while these protesters only represent a small fraction of the population in Canada and the United States, I cannot help but think about how their choices will affect the safety of others.

I think about my older brother, who works in the meat department of a grocery store in Seattle, Wash., and puts himself at risk to do his job every day.

I think about my aunt with Parkinson’s disease and my grandmother, who lives in a long-term care facility, and what can happen to them if they were to come in contact with the virus.

Ignorance around the severity of COVID-19 is what allowed it to spread in the first place, and our situation will never get better so long as that ignorance persists.