Ottawa and the provinces are taking heat lately for the timing of measures designed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Each new measure inevitably seems to come days, even weeks, late – from screening at the border, to ramping up purchases of personal protective equipment for health-care workers. This is a source of frustration for Canadians, especially now that the infection rate is in mid-crescendo, with hospitalizations rising, and the peak still to come.
Canadians ask, fairly, why governments didn’t act sooner.
The Trudeau government and provincial officials invariably say that all of their decisions are guided by “listening to the experts,” and “following the science.” These are standard press conference talking points, and they are repeatedly repeated. They should be, since following science is exactly what leaders should be doing.
The challenge is that “science” doesn’t always offer simple and incontrovertible answers, particularly to complex problems involving the best way to adapt society’s status quo to the evolving threat of a novel coronavirus.
Theresa Tam, who heads the Public Health Agency of Canada, has been making decisions based on a combination of research into the management of pandemics, the advice of the World Health Organization, and what is known from moment to moment about the nature of a new virus.
Those factors informed her recommendation against restricting travel from China early in the crisis, even as other countries were tightening their borders in February (Australia and Taiwan, for example).
In hindsight, the federal lack of border action until a little over two weeks ago now looks like a major error. But sometimes, science doesn’t provide pat answers. The current debate about whether everyone should wear face masks in public is an example. Some public health experts have long said they are unnecessary and even counter-productive. Other scientists believe masks worn by average citizens can be one of many tools in reducing the risk of spreading the virus.
There is evidence to support both views, and a range of positions in between. Understanding the biology of COVID-19 is hard. Harder still? Estimating how widespread mask use may change people’s behaviour, for better or worse, and how that may impact infection rates.
If this fast-moving pandemic has taught us anything, it is that elected officials need to respect the primacy of scientific evidence over politics. But there can be limits to that.
The undeniable truth is that there is much about this coronavirus that is unknown, and irrefutable conclusions about all of its characteristics, including probabilities surrounding particular methods of spread, are still months away.
As well, the data that public health officials rely on has at times been incomplete, belated, or even inaccurate. China under-reported the scope of the original outbreak in Hubei province, colouring the assumptions made by the WHO and similar bodies in the early days of the crisis.
What public health experts can say with certainty is that social distancing, along with extensive testing, tracing and isolation of the infected and their contacts, is the best way to beat a pandemic. There is consensus on these measures.
But imagine if Mr. Trudeau has said, in late January, that out of an abundance of caution he was going to limit flights between China and Canada, and impose an enforced two-week quarantine on anyone arriving in the country from the most affected areas, in spite of recommendations to the contrary from Ms. Tam.
He would have been pilloried on social media, by many of his own supporters, and by the Chinese government. The opposition might have condemned him for overriding the well-founded recommendations of the country’s top public health official.
Yet given where Canada is today, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether early, targeted border restrictions wouldn’t have made sense.
There can be no question that elected officials must show the maturity to let public health experts lead in this crisis. The fact that U.S. President Donald Trump’s dismissal of expert advice has helped turn his country into the global epicentre of the pandemic is glaring proof of that.
But there ought to be latitude for leaders to take precautionary measures in the interest of their country, and in defiance of conventional thinking, in a crisis like this.
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