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There have been several points over the course of the pandemic when it has become clear that we’ve collectively lost sight of the forest for the trees.

There was the time when some Ontario kindergarteners were instructed to eat their lunches in silence, because talking with their masks off might have marginally increased the risk of spreading COVID-19. There was the time when some Quebec teenagers in group homes were locked in windowless rooms for as many as 10 straight days in the name of infection control. And then there were all the moments in which some hospitals decided it was better to cancel surgeries and postpone diagnostics than to allow unvaccinated staff to continue working in already under-serviced facilities.

Since then – and especially as the science around vaccinations, treatment protocols and COVID-19 variants has evolved – most of us have come to understand that COVID-19 exists on a spectrum of harmful things. The virus can certainly still be dangerous, especially to those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable in one way or another. But other things are certainly worse on the whole: staff shortages at hospitals these days pose greater risks to patient care broadly than do a few unvaccinated nurses (especially since we know vaccination does not stop transmission of the latest variants), which is why the Alberta Health Services dropped its vaccine mandate last month. Some people were still outraged at that news, of course, as they have been with just about any announcement of loosened pandemic restrictions and dropped mandates.

The latest example – an announcement from Canadian Blood Services (CBS) that masking will no longer be mandatory for those who donate blood – has been so upsetting to some Canadians that they are threatening to boycott the organization unless or until it changes its policy. (In a statement, CBS explained that “the majority of Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19, and illness now caused by COVID-19 is far less severe in most cases.”)

Back in June, CBS warned that its national blood inventory was “critically low” – at the lowest point in a decade – owing to a shrinking donor base and the need to physically distance during appointments. Those physical distancing measures have now been abolished, and CBS likely assumes it will broaden its donor base by removing its masking requirement, while obviously still allowing those who want to continue masking to do so. If CBS’s assumption is indeed correct, the calculation is a no-brainer: it is better to marginally increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission at donor centres (making these centres as risky as grocery stores or movie theatres) than to maintain the status quo of critically low blood supplies. On a spectrum of bad things, a national blood shortage certainly seems worse than slightly increased transmission of COVID-19 among a heavily vaccinated population.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting, if not all that surprising, that the response to CBS dropping its mask requirement has been so visceral. It’s not really a logical reaction – those who are really concerned can still wear their high-quality, well-fitting masks – but it still speaks to the conditioning that the past several years has had on our ability to process risk and social responsibility. Some regular donors who were otherwise willing to have a needle stuck in their arms and have about 450 millilitres of blood depleted from their bodies for about 10 minutes are now unwilling to take on the risk of entering a room where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is roughly as high as in a Shoppers Drug Mart.

It’s a little bit like how some of the most COVID-conscious Americans reacted with fury at the news that many U.S. airlines were dropping mask requirements following a federal court ruling in April. People were always allowed to remove their masks to eat and drink on planes, making the masking requirement mostly for show anyway, but the change still prompted anger and anxiety. That response still makes sense; for years, we’ve been hearing how COVID-19 is The Worst Thing – to be avoided at all costs, with any measure necessary, even if that means requiring kindergartners to mime their feelings as they eat their cheese sandwiches – but now, that’s all changing, and many are struggling to adjust. The science and the risk around COVID-19 has changed over the past two-and-a-half years, but human instinct doesn’t necessarily evolve at the same pace.

The irony is that some polling shows that those who are best protected against COVID-19 with vaccines and boosters remain the most concerned about the virus. With that in mind, CBS’s removal of its mask mandate could actually backfire on the organization: regular donors are likely more civic-minded and health-conscious than your average person, which could make them less inclined to maintain regular appointments in a space where masks are optional. But hopefully they will see that the overall harm caused by denying Canadians of their donations will be more significant than the slightly increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

Recalibrating our perceptions of risk and danger will still take a while, though. After all, we’ve been staring at the trees for an awfully long time.

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