Since the rise of the pandemic, new and somewhat strict policy regulations have been put in place, requiring citizens of various cities and provinces in Canada to wear facemasks to prevent the spread of infection causing the COVID-19 disease. Amidst these regulations, there has been an uprising in opposition to such policies both within and outside of Canada. Some have led to the formation of anti-mask movements and demonstrations. MTN reporter Neelia Fuad interviewed Jake Eskesen, a Vancouverite based in Calgary, who manages back-end operations for the “March to Unmask” group, to understand the idea behind the movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article was edited by Kajal Pawar.
Debates on Mandatory Face masks in Public Spaces
Many debates are taking place on the topic of mandatory face mask use in public spaces. With the rise of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Vancouver, Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer in British Columbia (B.C.) recommended the use of face masks in certain circumstances. Some cities in Canada such as Ottawa and Toronto have mandatory by-laws by the city which requires facemasks to be worn in all indoor public spaces. In July, these by-laws were approved by council whereby a violation of these mandates would mean fines ranging between $200 to $400 dollars.
Other cities such as New York, Auckland and London have also strongly recommended the use of facemasks in order to help reduce the spread of the virus. Whilst there is no concrete law placed in Vancouver for the mandatory use of face masks, local businesses, restaurants, and public transit corporations have made face masks mandatory for safety purposes. The enforcement of face masks led to the formation of a new campaign – the March to Unmask campaign. This campaign is based on the idea that masks should not be mandatory, as people should have the right to choose if they want to wear face masks.
Pro-maskers perceive these face mask recommendations by Henry as a strategy to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to other individuals who may have weak immune systems. The World Health Organization recommends the use of cloth masks for the public, especially when the recommended social distancing measure of 2 meters cannot be maintained. Their approach to reducing transmission of the coronavirus includes a “Do It All” measure, where people try to employ all measures such as social distancing, avoiding crowded areas and wearing cloth masks (among other ways) to reduce the chances of catching this virus infection from someone with or without obvious symptoms.
While healthcare workers and those in high risk groups are advised to wear medical grade face masks, the general public has been urged to wear cloth masks, especially when they cannot ensure the social distancing recommendation to be implemented. As of October 30, 2020 a total of 231,029 Canadians have been infected by the coronavirus causing COVID-19, with over 10,000 deaths.
A March to Unmask: The anti-masking perspective
As a member of this group, Jake Eskesen, the back-end operator of the movement, says that the enforcement of the facemask policy infringes on basic human rights as laid out in the B.C. Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms. Eskesen said that the March to Unmask campaign initially started in five cities with the existing network that was built in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. He reached out to Ryan Kulbaba, who is the leader of an active freedom group in B.C. called A Celebration of Freedoms and Rights.
With Kulbaba’s support, Eskesen set up pages and marketing for the campaign; allowing this movement to expand to sixteen cities across Canada. On July 19th, which was the day before the voting of the motion to mandate masks happened, the movement had another in-person protest with a turnout of about 300 people. Despite having people participating and showing interest in the movement, Eskesen and the members of his group experienced significant backlash. He views the “new normal” as bringing “abnormal” and dissolving of trust within the society.
The back-ends operator also said that he is ready to face the consequences for his convictions and views towards this movement . Furthermore, Eskesen views the effectiveness of masks as questionable considering a long history of peer reviewed randomized controlled trial (RCT) studies citing that masks are not effective enough to be mandated for doctors outside of the surgery room, let alone the entire population. “Since the new conflicting studies are not up to standard, said Eskesen, thus the science is at the very least not settled [for this virus]”.
Pro-Maskers in Vancouver
As the rates of COVID-19 increase in the city, some individuals have taken the responsibility of wearing their face masks whenever they enter public areas. For this group, they view the use of face masks as one that is important because it helps protect the community from the infectious disease that has killed more than a million people worldwide. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the cases within B.C. have totaled up to 13,371 with 2,325 of these being active cases. Alongside these active cases, there have been 259 confirmed cases of deaths in the province. With retail centers and public transit making face masks mandatory, public health officials within British Columbia aim to reduce the rates of contractions in the city. Social media pages like Vancouver Coastal Health have been providing important facts about COVID-19 and exposure notifications for people living and visiting the city.
How has this impacted the city?
There is no doubt that the two groups have strong, conflicting views towards the enforced use of face masks. With the opening of more public areas, the city is seeing a rise in the cases of COVID-19. As face masks start becoming mandatory, people who are against it are finding it a hassle to go about their normal routine. On the contrary, the people who are for the use of facemasks in public would be willing to accept it as the new normal, and a way to keep themselves and others around them protected from the potential spread of this infection. The question remains, if exercising the freedoms granted by the nation and the province, should be waived when it comes to potentially causing third-party harm during a global pandemic.