By Sebastian Steven, Carleton University Graduate
Living in downtown Ottawa means never being far from a demonstration. The nation’s capital is the ideal venue for protests against invasions or displays of solidarity for climate action and social justice. A different kind of demonstration, however, was organized here in early 2022. Stepping outside my apartment near Bank Street dropped me into the “Freedom Convoy.” The Convoy first labelled itself as a protest against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the border into the United States but shifted almost immediately into an unlawful occupation of Ottawa streets set on ending all COVID-19 vaccine mandates and removing public health restrictions.
The Convoy occupation rallied against undeniably lifesaving measures. There have been significantly fewer deaths due to COVID-19 in individuals who have been vaccinated. Moreover, public health measures (PHMs) for masking, social distancing, and isolation of positive cases have reduced COVID-19 infection. Combined, vaccines and PHMs have spared many from both mild symptoms and severe months-long disabilities that could come from COVID-19 infection.
Individuals with ties to and involvement in hate groups organized and participated in this Convoy. However, of interest to this post, some Convoy occupants were more focused on simply opposing PHMs. This subset of participants demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of science guiding the pandemic response in Canada during their displays of opposition. Despite aiming to highlight perceived issues with vaccine mandates and PHMs, occupants instead highlighted that some Canadians may not have strong enough knowledge of science and health.
Jordan Klepper’s interview with occupants of Rideau St, for example, includes one unvaccinated man who was bewildered that his status means “[he] can’t go to the restaurants, can’t play hockey, and can’t go watch the [Ottawa Senators].” He seemingly views vaccination simply as a method to bar certain individuals of the population from public spaces without acknowledging the science informing these policies. Other knowledge gaps in science and health were seen in Convoy propaganda. Signs questioned scientists' motivations, discounted the value of PHMs, and drew unsupported concerns about deaths from surgeries delayed by COVID-19.
These individuals displayed low health literacy during their participation in the Convoy. Health literacy is defined by the World Health Organization as:
People’s knowledge, motivation, and competences to access, understand, and appraise health information in order to make judgments and take decisions in every-day life concerning health care, disease prevention, and health promotion to maintain or improve quality of life during the life course.
Equipping Canadians with skills in health literacy can enhance one’s ability to understand their health status and improve it. Health literacy is displayed, for example, when one can collect and understand information surrounding the risk of COVID-19 to then take steps to mitigate infection. The ability to do this, though, varies among Canadians. Estimates from 2008 show that 60% of Canadian adults are unable to obtain, understand, and act upon health information shared with them. This alarming statistic is more problematic with no national update to this estimate since 2008.
Granted, the number of participants in the Convoy was minimal compared to the entire population of Canada. However, the occupation made it obvious that there are still Canadians who have not achieved sufficient health literacy. Convoy propaganda showed that low health literacy continues to be a significant problem in Canada into 2022. Some occupants who rallied against PHMs, for example, may not have the knowledge to take in the evidence showing that these measures increase safety for an entire population. The unvaccinated man interviewed by Klepper may not have been exposed to accessible health messaging describing that entering high-risk environments without being vaccinated puts himself in much higher danger of being infected with and dying from COVID-19. Shifting from a mindset that lacks concrete health and science-related knowledge to a more informed viewpoint would demonstrate improved health literacy.
Health literacy, though, is not an issue of solely individual level factors. It is a social determinant of health (SDoH). This term refers to the unique living conditions one experiences that shape their health. SDoH are often influenced by systemic issues (e.g., socio-economic status, education level, etc.) that cause general societal inequities. Health literacy falls in line with this. Lower-income Canadians, for example, tend to have lower health literacy skills. A similar trend has been seen in Canadians with no post-secondary education. Individuals with little educational background are more likely to have insufficient health literacy skills. Children, even, receive most of their knowledge related to COVID-19 from parents, suggesting that one’s health literacy may be influenced by and sustained through generations. In total, research has demonstrated how engrained health literacy is as a SDoH.
Importantly, gaps in health literacy have direct effects on the health of an individual and the population. Individuals who have both chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and low health literacy skills, for example, tend to have a lower quality of life. Other general findings show that individuals with combined chronic illness and low health literacy skills have higher rates of mortality from their illness. These findings are especially troubling knowing that the proportion of older adults in the Canadian population will increase in the coming years. Improving national health literacy could therefore reduce the burden on the Canadian health care system for the care of chronic illnesses that will become increasingly prevalent in an aging population. Improving health literacy across a population could also empower individuals in subsequent pandemics to understand public health messaging and incorporate it into health behaviours that keep all members of society safe.
Many existing definitions of health literacy do not adequately acknowledge the very real influence of the SDoH. As a result, interventions to improve health literacy may be too narrowly focused on individual factors. The Convoy shows, instead, that population-level interventions guided by the SDoH make more sense. The occupants did not exist solely within themselves but were members of diverse families, earners of varying incomes, and with varied educational backgrounds. These factors are large-scale SDoH that influence health literacy levels and overall health. This may be why previous attempts at improving health literacy in a one-on-one clinical setting have largely failed to make great impacts on health outcomes; issues influenced by large systemic factors cannot be fixed by small-scale individual level interventions.
Community-based interventions have been suggested as a possible method by which to bolster skills in health literacy. Attempting to improve the health literacy skills of entire communities aligns with the knowledge that health literacy is a SDoH and addresses previously stated concerns. Research suggests that programs should be tailored to the unique SDoH of each community. This would require developing intervention tools that are specific to the community’s culture. This could include pairing health literacy skill workshops, for example, with programs that aim to improve other influential SDoH like education and income. Population-level interventions like these could have a much broader effect on the health of Canadians because they would inherently account for the large systemic influences that dictate skills in health literacy.
Downtown Ottawa continues to be a stage to discuss current issues in Canadian society. Though the Freedom Convoy occupants may have felt they were putting on a performance solely to rally against pandemic-related issues, they were, in fact, bringing a different fundamental Canadian issue to the spotlight. The Convoy showed that we must improve the health literacy of Canadians. Doing so is imperative because health literacy is a SDoH with definite influence over the general health of individual Canadians. Health literacy must be addressed if we wish to improve the health of Canadians. Taking action on this issue could even prevent future disruptive occupations during public health crises. The exasperated residents of Ottawa and those occupying the city streets could both be helped by viewing such issues through the lens of health literacy. Though, I admit, this is a difficult mindset change to make, speaking as one of those exasperated Ottawa citizens living in the middle of the occupation. That being said, my background in health sciences has taught me that addressing issues at the systemic level is often the best way to bring about meaningful change.
This blog was originally written as part of the HLTH5402 course