Governments around the world lacked focus in the initial months of the pandemic, including Canada, which was tracking bad data on COVID-19 when the virus began to spread, an international panel has found.
Joanne Liu, the Canadian representative on the 13-member independent panel examining the global response to COVID-19, said the review found that the kind of data countries were relying on in early 2020 was having an impact significant on the urgency of their response.
In the case of Canada, the government has mainly focused on metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths to track the virus. However, these are lagging indicators, which do not give a clear picture of the direction of the crisis, said Dr Liu.
Governments that focused on leading indicators – such as mass testing to determine the speed of the virus’s spread, including asymptomatic transmission – had a much better idea of the severity of the outbreak in early 2020, said said Dr. Liu, and took a more aggressive containment. not.
“Many rich countries have ended up using lagging indicators to make decisions when they should have used leading indicators that will give you a warning,” Dr Liu said in an interview.
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“We haven’t done this in Canada. We have never had an advanced testing strategy. And so we never ended up being in an anticipatory mode. We were still in reactive mode.
These findings add new details to a recent expert panel report that determined February 2020 to be a ‘lost month’ for the world, when many governments, including Canada’s, could have done much more to put the brakes on the epidemic in its infancy. , but did not.
The World Health Organization has convened the panel of experts to examine weaknesses in the global response to COVID-19, including mistakes made by the WHO.
“In the majority of countries, most of the time, there was wait-and-see behavior,” said Dr Liu, a Montreal doctor and former international president of Medicins Without Borders. “Canada is one of those countries that basically didn’t do very well, not really bad either. We were in the middle.
Ottawa said it reacted quickly in early 2020, with senior public health officials meeting with provinces and territories in January and February of that year to monitor the situation and discuss next steps. However, as the government downplayed the need for containment measures at airports and gave mixed signals about wearing and testing masks, scientists from the Public Health Agency of Canada told The Globe and Mail the last year that they regularly struggled to get urgent messages across the channel. of command.
Meanwhile, the government has repeatedly said the risk to the Canadian public from the virus is low, based on internal assessments that were later found to be flawed. In March, the federal auditor general said the government had abused its pandemic early warning system and its risk assessments were poorly designed. Auditor General Karen Hogan called on Ottawa to adopt a more “credible and timely” approach to tracking threats.
The panel found that only a small number of countries have handled the epidemic well – and with the necessary urgency – including South Korea, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan, each adopting measures early on. strict to contain the virus.
Dr Liu said she sees Canada’s testing strategy as one of its biggest flaws because it hasn’t sparked an aggressive containment effort. “Once you have a few cases, and you’re not able to suppress community transmission, you’re in trouble,” she said.
Additionally, Canada was among the countries that did not prioritize COVID-19 adequately early enough in the outbreak.
These findings are now the foundation for an attempt to reshape the way the world responds to future pandemic threats. COVID-19 has shown that, on their own, governments are inevitably distracted by the most pressing issues of the day, not those that have yet to explode into crisis – although the impact of the issue could be catastrophic.
A statement is proposed to the World Health Organization that would require countries to elevate severe outbreaks “to the highest level of political leadership” from the onset of the problem, forcing heads of state to address the issue as an urgent priority , rather than leaving to deal with departments or ministers.
The panel believes that too many countries were hesitant, devoured by national affairs and political disputes even as the epidemic was declared a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, the highest alarm the WHO can raise.
Between January 29 and February 26, the government’s standing committee on health met several times to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. But a review of the federal government’s priorities in February 2020 shows that when it comes to the COVID-19 epidemic, Ottawa’s main focus was on repatriating Canadians abroad rather than on strict containment measures. This included Canadian citizens in Wuhan and those aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was stranded in Japan.
Meanwhile, a litany of international and domestic issues has captured the government’s attention. At the top was Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, an issue that consumed much of the Prime Minister’s travel schedule in February 2020. Mr. Trudeau traveled to Ethiopia to take speaking at a summit of African leaders on February. 9, before leaving for Kuwait to meet with Canadian troops. The trip also took him to Senegal and Munich next week to push for the UN designation, an effort that failed.
A trip to Barbados to advance the UN bid was canceled when Mr. Trudeau attended emergency meetings in Canada on rail blockades and pipeline protests across the country. The federal government was also preparing a federal budget and faced controversy over a major oil sands project.
From a foreign affairs perspective, Canada’s attention was also divided, with much of its attention focused on the fallout from Iran’s destruction of a Ukraine International Airlines flight, which killed 176 people, including 138 who were living in Canada or were about to travel there. The upper echelons of the Trudeau government were also in the process of ensuring that trade deals with the United States did not collapse.
The international panel said elevating a potential epidemic crisis to heads of state as quickly as possible would ensure these issues are addressed as a priority internally, as well as between governments. While this does not mean that other issues are put aside, it would potentially ensure that these threats are addressed more directly, alongside other pressing issues, in an effort to contain the problem.