Governments eschewed science during COVID response

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, January 4, 2023
Governments eschewed science during COVID response

As we enter a new year, it’s worth recalling a hard truth from the recent past. Government treatment of COVID-19 was starkly at odds with the realities of the risks. In short, a risk that was non-uniform across the age range was treated as uniform. A risk that was unlikely to rival the greatest human microbial risks was treated as if it were the four horsemen of the apocalypse. A risk that only lightly threatened children was met with drastic efforts to shield children while that same risk, predictably much more harmful to the elderly, was met with virtually no extra efforts to protect the elderly.

And the specific “protective” measures, implemented in service of those wrongheaded risk-assessments by our governments, were known losers. In fact, in 2019—before COVID-19—the World Health Organization (WHO) published the aptly named “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza.” To read it is to weep.

Here's the big ticket finding. A review of the literature prior to COVID showed that virtually all of government’s favoured “non-pharmaceutical interventions” had proven essentially useless against epidemic and pandemic influenza, and while coronaviruses are not identical to influenza viruses, these same interventions would be equally useless (or more useless) against something like COVID-19. Again, this finding was based on studies pre-dating COVID.

Now, let’s look at three of government’s most popular policies during the pandemic.

Wash your hands, they said (and wash everything else). But based on a meta-analysis of 10 studies published pre-2020, encompassing 11,000 participants, the WHO concluded “There is a moderate overall quality of evidence that hand hygiene does not have a substantial effect on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.” The same was true of surface sanitation.

Wear a mask, they said. Wear any mask. Wear a surgical mask. Wear two masks. But the WHO observed (based on 10 studies with 6,000 participants), that “Ten [randomized clinical trials] were included in the meta-analysis, and there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.” No evidence. Again, this was 2019, based on knowledge gained from hard experience with previous influenza viruses with little difference in their key characteristics than COVID-19.

Stay home if you’re sick, they said. But what did the WHO say pre-COVID?: “Epidemiological and simulation studies suggested that isolation of sick individuals could reduce transmission in epidemics and pandemics.” But… “There is a very low overall quality of evidence that isolation of sick individuals has a substantial effect on transmission of influenza except in closed settings.”

Clearly, a key lesson of COVID-19 should be that our governments, despite all the talk of being guided by science, flatly rejected known science when it came to policies responding to the virus. The science-validation mechanisms in play in 2020 in Canada’s public health institutions clearly failed to convey scientific reality to policymakers.

So, in 2023 and beyond, to help governments in Canada with their credibility in future crises, the Trudeau government should create a robust independent COVID policy commission to produce truth, reconciliation and consequences. The next massive risk might actually be the apocalyptic threat COVID was imagined to be. If we’re to manage it better next time, we must learn from what we did wrong and ensure it can’t happen again.