Governments around the world lacked focus in the early months of the pandemic, including Canada’s, which was following the wrong data about 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 the type of data countries relied upon in early 2020 had a significant impact on how urgently they responded.
In Canada’s case, the government concentrated mostly on metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths to track the virus. However, those are lagging indicators, which did not give a clear picture of where the crisis was headed, Dr. Liu said.
Governments that focused on leading indicators – such as mass testing to determine how quickly the virus was spreading, including asymptomatic transmission – had a much better handle on how serious the outbreak was becoming in early 2020, Dr. Liu said, and took more aggressive containment steps.
“Many of the wealthy countries ended up using lagging indicators to make decisions when they should have used leading indicators that will give you a heads up,” Dr. Liu said in an interview.
“We didn’t do that in Canada. We never had an advance strategy in terms of testing. And therefore we never ended up being in an anticipatory mode. We were always in a reactive mode.”
Those findings add new detail to a recent report by the panel that determined February, 2020, was a “lost month” for the world, when many governments, including that of Canada, could have done much more to curb the outbreak in its formative stages, but did not.
The World Health Organization convened the panel to examine weaknesses in the global response to COVID-19, including mistakes made by the WHO.
“For the majority of countries, most of the time, there was a wait-and-see behaviour,” said Dr. Liu, a Montreal physician and former international president of Médicins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). “Canada is one of those countries who basically didn’t do great, didn’t do totally awful either. We were in the middle.”
Ottawa has maintained it responded swiftly in early 2020 with top public-health officials meeting with the provinces and territories in January and February that year to monitor the situation and discuss next steps. However, as the government played down the need for containment measures at airports and gave mixed signals on mask-wearing and testing, scientists inside the Public Health Agency of Canada told The Globe and Mail last year they regularly struggled to get urgent messages up the chain of command.
Meanwhile, the government repeatedly said the risk to the Canadian public from the virus was low, relying on internal assessments that were later deemed faulty. In March, the federal Auditor-General said the government misused 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” method for tracking threats.
The panel found only a small number of countries handled the outbreak well – and with the needed urgency – including South Korea, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan, with each enacting strict measures early on to contain the virus.
Dr. Liu said she sees Canada’s testing strategy as one of its biggest faults, because it didn’t prompt an aggressive containment effort. “Once you get a few cases, and you’re not able to suppress community transmission, then you get in trouble,” she said.
As well, Canada was among the countries that did not give adequate priority to COVID-19 early enough in the outbreak.
Those findings are now the groundwork of a bid to reshape how the world responds to future pandemic threats. COVID-19 has shown that, left to their own devices, governments are inevitably distracted by the most pressing issues of the day, not ones that have yet to explode into a crisis – even if the impact of the problem could be catastrophic.
A declaration is being proposed to the World Health Organization that would require countries to elevate serious outbreaks “to the highest level of political leadership” at the outset of the problem, forcing heads of state to treat the matter as an urgent priority, rather than leaving it to departments or ministers to handle.
The panel believes too many countries dithered, consumed by domestic matters and political wrangling even as the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, 2020, the highest alarm the WHO can sound.
Between Jan. 29 and Feb. 26, the government’s standing committee on health met several times to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. But an examination of the federal government’s priorities in February, 2020, shows that when it came to the COVID-19 outbreak, Ottawa was focused primarily on repatriation of Canadians abroad rather than strict containment measures. That 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 matters commanded the government’s attention. At the top was Canada’s ill-fated bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, a matter that consumed much of the Prime Minister’s travel schedule in February, 2020. Mr. Trudeau went to Ethiopia to speak to a summit of African leaders on Feb. 9, before departing for Kuwait to meet with Canadian troops. The trip also took him to Senegal and Munich the next week to press for the UN designation, an effort that failed.
A trip to Barbados to further the UN bid was cancelled 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 facing a controversy over a proposed major oil sands project.
From a foreign affairs perspective, Canada’s attention was also divided, with much of its focus on the fallout from Iran’s downing of a Ukraine International Airlines flight, which killed 176 people, including 138 who either lived in Canada or were on their way to visit. The top echelons of the Trudeau government were also in the middle of ensuring trade agreements with the United States didn’t fall apart.
The international panel said elevating a potential outbreak crisis to heads of state as fast as possible would ensure such matters are treated as a priority internally, and also between governments. Although it wouldn’t mean other issues are shelved, it would potentially ensure such threats are handled more directly, alongside other pressing matters, with the goal of containing the problem.