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Pandemic Moment: your guide to critically thinking about information

To Facebook or Not to Facebook

Social media is a wonderful platform to disperse all kinds of information needs.  However, as the virus travels across our planet, here are some things to consider about your social media practice.

For many people, social media outlets are a much needed way to express spirited emotions, and thereby offer a sense of relief.

Posting information, opinions, and feelings about Covid-19 brings multiple voices to the emergency.  Unfortunately, this practice serves to add confusion to a strained atmosphere.  During the emergency, humans benefit from a singular message, delivered by the primary authoritative public health sources, and dispersed in a responsible manner by trusted journalistic agencies.

Social media groups also tend to attract social shammers.  It is natural that individuals will react differently in an emergency situation, especially in a prolonged and widespread emergency.  Some people will prefer to remain indoors, having everything delivered, and sanitizing all things they come in contact with.  Others will venture outside for walks, playing with their kids in open areas, and inviting one or two friends over, now and again.  Still others will carry on as though there is no emergency at all. 

The way forward is to remain vigilant, seek out authoritative information regularly and abide by the recommendations of our public health authorities.

Here is one example among many of unhelpful social shamming:

"I am trying to understand why parents are allowing their kids to hang out with friends. I am trying to understand why adults are continuing to see their friends and get together as families or in groups. I am not judging. I am just trying to understand the logic behind these choices. When camp is canceled this summer because this virus is still not under control, these same parents will be the ones complaining the most..."

As you can see, social shammers can be given over to passive-aggression, representing their interpretation of the emergency as the best one, hyperbole, and predicting the future without supporting evidence, all the while forgetting that their shame objects are also their neighbors whom they will continue to live in close proximity to when the light returns.

During the emergency, social media, I have heard, can be very good for spreading kindness and positivity.

Cliff Hanger

Discovered in a Facebook group, a fellow human posted information about the safety of playground equipment for children.  The post consisted of a screen shot featuring a CBC story on the subject and the stern warning that Covid-19 can live on metal structures for 48 hours, according to an unnamed expert.

Without context, and without more information, the sense of fear combines with the real threat of the virus, and thereby distorts reality.

Our research process job is to find the context to help us make informed decisions.  Unfortunately, this practice takes extra work, because it involves consulting and drawing information from a number of sources.

Here are some examples:

(March 19) posed the playground question to two experts.  Here is the story around this conversation,

"Can I take my kids outside to play? Yes. Everyone needs to get outside. Kids especially need fresh air and movement, and you don’t have to be restricted to your backyard. But Meghan McGuinty, affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, puts it like this: “Think parks not playgrounds.” The former has open space, easier to maintain the six-foot distance. Bring your own bats, balls, and toys, and clean them after each visit. This helps establish a routine and minimize the spread of germs within the family.

Can they use the playground equipment? It’s a tighter space and a higher risk. Kids move quickly. They touch a lot of surfaces, and it’s impossible to wipe down everything, McGinty says. Watson acknowledges it’s not always practical to keep toddlers away. For her the bigger issue is numbers. If the equipment is crowded with kids, it’s not safe."

Dr. John Williams is chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

Crystal Watson is senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

(March 18) Today's Parent interviewed a paediatrician

"Studies are showing that the coronavirus can live for about three days on surfaces such as plastic and steel. I definitely wouldn’t go to the playground because you don’t know who’s been there ahead of you."

Dr. Joanne Vaughan is a paediatrician in Toronto (self-disclosing that: she is not an expert in public health or infectious diseases)

With conflicting advice from experts, what should we do?

Before addressing this question, I have added another information piece on this same question.

(March 20) Released in a letter on the topic by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB)

"We know how challenging it can be for families to remain indoors and away from others and how important it is to continue to get fresh air and physical exercise. However, we have become aware that the play structures and equipment at some schools are being heavily used by many children at the same time. We would like to remind the community that it is incredibly important to keep your distance from others, including on playgrounds. Children should only be using this equipment when it is not occupied by additional children. Also, remind children regularly to avoid touching their face, nose and mouth and practice hand hygiene frequently while visiting playgrounds and after using playground equipment.

It is our hope that all playgrounds can remain open throughout the school closure but we continue to monitor the situation closely in partnership with public health officials and will let the community know if anything changes."


We could talk about conflicting information in a variety of ways.  However, I will only speak to a few aspects.  

1. The cliff hanger of posting about an inaccessible story from a trusted information source prompts us to obtain further information, as does the report (by an unnamed expert) that the virus has a lengthy lifespan.

2. The lifespan appears to be uncertain.  According to the Facebook post, the virus can live externally on some surfaces for 48 hours, (reported by an unnamed expert) while the Today's Parent article speculates a lifespan of "about 3 days". (derived from unspecified studies)  Even though there are no specifics behind the authorities giving this lifespan information, it is significant that we now have two sources informing us about a lengthy lifespan for the virus on external surfaces.

3. Look for points of agreement in your sources.  For example, the article and the TDSB notice share the perspective that playground equipment might be used when there are only a few other kids playing.

4. Because the pandemic is an evolving process, more weight should be given to newly published information.

5. Local conditions are also very important.  Therefore, if you are living within the City of Toronto, you should pay closer attention to the TDSB notice.

6. It is also encouraging to see that the TDSB is in contact with public health officials (expressed in the second paragraph) and is conscious of the fact that the course of the pandemic is evolving.  In other words, the Facebook post, and the stories from and Today's Parent seem to be static and isolated reports, while the TDSB is committed to providing updates on this particular issue.  This is not to say that these other sources will not offer more stories in the future on this same issue.  In contrast, the TDSB assures us of its intent to provide new information on this topic as the situation changes.

7. Working with primary sources (humans) that are closest to the relevant pool of knowledge is better.  in other words, Today's Parent has interviewed a paediatrician in Toronto, and not an expert in public health or infectious diseases.  This fact may account for her overly cautious position.

The bottom line.

After this analysis, (March 23) it seems that a prudent course is to continue to take your kids outside, and beyond the backyard.  However, as the position says, park space and open fields as opposed to playground structures seem to be the preferred play space.

8.Use common sense. Even though the TDSB suggests that kids can use play structures when there are only a few other kids around, it is unrealistic to expect kids to refrain from touching their face!

Finally, it is useful to seek answers to questions from public health officials within our jurisdiction.  If you cannot find an answer, there are several ways to contact these authorities.


Here are some ways to reach Toronto Public Health (TPH).


Telephone: 416-338-7600

TTY: 416-392-0658

Yesterday, (March 23) I emailed TPH about the playground question. 24 hours later, I am still waiting for a reply.

*March 31, and there has been no reply to my email question.

**April 8, still waiting!

Today (March 24) I decided to ask the playground question via the telephone.  TPH is using a straight-forward click through menu structure and it was easy to get through to a human to address my question.  The reply was prompt, and essentially agrees with the statement issued by the TDSB on March 20.

Playgrounds are not closed at this time.  However, the equipment is not being sanitized and parents should ensure that children (and themselves) practice social distancing.

Staying on top of things

As I was returning from a school park's soccer field with my kids, (March 25) I overheard two parents discussing (at the required social distancing distance) the recent decision to close City of Toronto parks.

This encounter and the encounter's aftermath, reflects a critical information thinking element that we have been discussing.

1. Always try to verify information, either from the original issuing authority, or from multiple credible sources of information.

It was not difficult to discover appropriate sources to validate this statement.  It was widely reported in the mainstream media.  However, as I discussed under the "In the news tab" news agencies reporting on a story will sometimes shape a story in a way that may unintentionally distort its true meaning.

The following example of the reported closure by CityNews illustrates this point. (March 25)  CityNews offers the story in two parts.  There is an audio-visual component followed by a short written portion.  In the audio-visual piece, Mark McAllister tells us the following, "The mayor announcing the closure of all parks and park facilities..."  Unfortunately, this statement by itself is untrue.  Following this statement, McAllister goes on to clarify the meaning of the "park closure."  The meaning is also clarified in the written portion, part of which is reproduced below.

"The City of Toronto is closing all city-owned playgrounds and other park amenities effective immediately as part of efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Park green spaces will still be accessible, but playground structures with fencing and gates will be locked. Unfenced playground structures will have signs and be taped off.

Playgrounds, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, outdoor exercise equipment and other parks amenities, as well as parking lots attached to its parks system, will all be affected by the closure."

In fact, the City of Toronto has closed playgrounds and park amenities, not parks! (at this time, March 25)

With the spread of covid-19 comes the spread  of misinformation.  Other news services have also put forward misleading information such as this Global News headline.

"...playgrounds and parks shuttered"

In tandem with the City of Toronto, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has acted in a similar way, taking the responsible measure as directed by the local public health authority.

Part of the TDSB statement reads as follows: (March 25)

"Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health has announced the closure of a number of city amenities including all city-owned playgrounds, sports fields, and basketball and tennis courts to limit public congregation and reduce the spread of COVID-19. All Toronto schools have been called on to do the same. For that reason, the TDSB will be closing all playgrounds and other amenities, including our sports fields and basketball and tennis courts, until further notice."

To recap, taking steps to verify the information will go a long way in helping you stay safe and "in the know."

Update to the Update

As we have discovered, closely following the path of the virus and our collective responsive measures is crucial.  The most current information (March 31st) about the question of park closures is discussed below.

On Monday March 30th, reputable news outlets reported the continued closure of playgrounds and park amenities.  With respect to open park space, CTV News reported the following:

"Green spaces such as parks, trails and ravines will remain open “for walkthrough access,” according to the province. However, officials warn that individuals must maintain physical distance of at least two meters."

CP24 ran an identical message, reproduced here: "Green spaces in parks, trails, ravines and conservation areas that aren't otherwise closed will remain open for walkthrough access, as long as people maintain a distance of at least two metres from others."

The update/change appears to be that green spaces that have not been closed are now only open for walkthrough access.

Now that we have verified the new information from two reputable news sources, it should be the end of the story.  However, sometimes it is useful to sleuth out more information.  In fact, the City of Toronto's information on this issue reports no update or change on this matter.

From their webpage, updated March 31st, it reads:

"Park and ravine green spaces remain accessible, but all amenities within City parks are closed. If you are visiting a park space, please practice physical distancing.

While in a park, residents must not use park amenities or congregate in groups. Dogs can be taken into park spaces on a leash. Please do not put yourself or loved ones or neighbours at risk of exposure."

As a follow-up I phoned Toronto Public Health, the local covid-19 authority, and posed the following question, "Can I take my two kids to a park and kick around a soccer ball?"

The TPH representative directed me to the webpage I quoted above and agreed that it is (at this time) lawful and safe for me to take my kids to the park and kick around a soccer ball!

As we discussed elsewhere, in the face of conflicting information, we should take the more cautious and prudent course, and endeavor to seek out more clarifying information.

On the lighter side

When politicians start closing their offices, you know it's serious!

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