'It’s like watching a hurricane': Critics of Canada's COVID-19 response could never have predicted its scale

When it’s all said and done, COVID-19 could claim between 11,000 to 22,000 Canadian lives despite strong control measures in place over the duration of the pandemic, according to the new modeling data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Thursday.

The numbers are stark and while model data is an inexact science, according to a recent Ipsos poll, half of the Canadians surveyed believe more severe restrictions should have been in place sooner. 

“The farther away you are [from the outbreak], it’s like watching a hurricane, you think you know where and how it could hit, but almost no one here makes policy according to projections,” said Susan Bondy, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney agrees with the eager fifty percent of Canadians.

“It was a mistake for Canada to wait so long to close our borders...we will deploy a much more rigorous approach than the federal government has in screening and quarantining international arrivals,” Kenney said in a press conference earlier this month.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Alberta's Premier Jason Kenney after a memorial service for the victims Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752 crash in Iran at the Saville Community Sports Centre in Edmonton, Canada on January 12, 2020. (Photo by Walter Tychnowicz / AFP) (Photo by WALTER TYCHNOWICZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The Canadian government kept the Canada-U.S. border open until Mar. 21 while trying to ensure essential goods could continue to flow, and were also heavily scrutinized for not having rigorous messaging to those flying home.

While many in the political spectrum were waiting for directives from the World Health Organization on how to react to COVID-19 and what they could to quell the spread, health experts in Canada were bracing for a dim inevitable reality.

“Epidemiologists, front-line workers, health ministers were all watching the epidemic, all of us knew that there was a possibility it was going to become a very large outbreak in Canada,” said Bondy.

On Mar. 7, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Medical Health Office fought back tears during a press conference while talking about how elderly British Columbians are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19.

Bondy believes the feeling Dr. Henry had on stage was likely something every health official had dealt with in the lead up to implementing drastic measures.

“The anxiety being felt by Medical Health officers should have been publicly communicated earlier so people and businesses could mentally prepare for physically distancing,” she said.

Politics over science

While Kenney wanted earlier implementation of measures, according to Bondy the delay is a result of the pandemic becoming politicized and partisanship taking precedence over science.

“I think one of the lessons we will learn in hindsight is that the experts who study pandemics who always proposed social distancing and travel bans, but without the politics, are listened to,” said Bondy.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 3: Newly elected Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, on a swing through Toronto after his visit to Ottawa yesterday. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In politics, nearly everything is calculated, and while Kenney may have strong feelings about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s performance, a recent Ipsos poll shows that 3 out of 4 Canadians are happy with the job being done by the PM.

On the provincial side of things, approval ratings are even higher for Kenney and his contemporaries who bolster a 84% approval rate of the work done so far.

So, while 85 percent of Canadians might support stricter physical distancing measures enforced by legislation, and larger fines, Bondy is quick to note that political messaging of measures and timing is a big factor.

“It becomes politically viable when there’s serious cases, whether people are in the ICU or there’s a death, politically it’s hard to move before that here,” said Bondy.

Restrictive measures

While Canada has endured a pandemic before, there has never been anything quite to the scale of COVID-19, especially due to the lack of early information around its transmission.

“I was in the Ontario scenario watching the messaging from a number of major bureaucracies who were trying to decide when it was right for them to make a rigid pronouncement of travel bans, staffing, limit face to face meetings -- it evolves so quickly,” said Bondy.

When it comes to bringing in restrictive measures, Canadians didn’t react like China, who entirely shut down the origin of the virus, Wuhan, from the rest of the country. 

On the opposite spectrum was Italy, who took a more relaxed approach at first and it resulted in them being ravaged by the coronavirus with a fatality rate over twelve percent.

As Bondy points out, the different health systems and societal factors need to be taken into effect rather than just looking at raw data.

“We don’t have politics like China, we don’t have the health system of Italy, so we’re never sure about how those models are going to affect us and how,” she said.

Susan Bondy, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto.

Instead of relying on data from other countries, Bondy noted provincial health systems prefer to study their own data and create solutions based on their problems at hand.

“The stuff that was on hand from other countries was evolving as well, and Health Ministries in Canada are moved by local, made in Canada data,” said Bondy.

In terms of getting people to really understand the gravity of the situation, Bondy indicates that Canadians need to see hard numbers  of hospitalizations and deaths to realize change is necessary. 

“The populous is only ready to accept it when there’s clear and present danger...the day that you feel it's time, it's probably a day too late,” she said.

The first COVID-19 case became ill on January 15, but it was almost two months to the exact date the federal government announced they would restrict flights to certain airports and limit travel to countries affected heavily by the pandemic. But, had the government instituted travel bans earlier, Bondy notes that Canadians may not have understood why their government was taking the measure and would call it overblown.

“It always feels like it’s too early like it's too early for radical impositions on people, such radical harm to disrupt the economy, it’s always too soon when you’re deciding on these major measures,” she said.

Part of Kenney’s speech indicated how Alberta’s bottom line would be decimated through the course of the pandemic, and economics is a factor that is heavily weighed in the western society.

For example, U.S. President Donald Trump said by easter businesses would be back up and running, despite the evidence showing that the U.S., which is in far worse shape than Canada was not flattening the curve.

“We have policies of protecting people from stark economic harm and not inhibiting movement until it’s absolutely necessary,” said Bondy.

Lessons to be learned

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and argue about the speed and ferocity of the measures enacted by each level of government, but in the scientific community, the focus is to start working on a solution to the problem.

“There is a desire to arm-chair quarterback right now, but it needs to be constructive not punitive. Where we should put our intellectual energy is what happens next,” said Bondy.

The focus in Bondy’s view is simple, to now devote all the necessary energy to control rebound outbreak while a vaccine is created.

“There’s still a huge proportion of the population who are vulnerable and for infection to spread all it takes is one spark for it to happen all over again,” said Bondy.

To best plan for the future, Bondy hopes at the federal and provincial levels that governments are putting economists and public health policy in the same room to create plans for the future.

“Communicate honestly about how we as a country and as provinces can say ‘here are the possible scenarios, prepare yourselves’,” said Bondy.