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May. 8, 2021 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Dr. Brown: Our leaders have failed us too often in pandemic
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Niagara. (File photo)

Too little, too late and sometimes wrong: That about describes the state of the pandemic for most countries around the world.

Thank goodness for success stories such as the aggressive vaccination programs in Israel and the U.K. and even in the United States – although the refusal of many Americans to accept vaccination threatens any chance of achieving herd immunity and speaks to the continuing political divide and misinformation in that country.

Others, such as Europe and Canada, fumbled badly by failing in the summer and fall of 2020 to secure sufficient vaccine to meet the needs of their populations. The tragic result is that both regions now face a serious wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths related to the far more infectious U.K. variant without the protection that timelier comprehensive vaccination would have offered.

Short of vaccine, Canadian health authorities made the decision to delay the second shot by an additional two to three months. There was no clinical trial evidence to support that decision, which means that it might make no difference, offer less protection or possibly offer longer-lasting protection.

But we won’t know without a trial and so Canada stands as a poster child for a giant unplanned experiment, and worse, there’s no attempt to learn from this experiment.

That’s not the way of science. We understand the reason – get at least one jab into as many people as possible – but this experiment highlights poor planning, the results of which may not be known for many months to come. The federal failure to secure sufficient vaccine, delayed lockdowns by the Ontario government before Christmas and again recently, and wilful behaviour by some are responsible for the present surges in cases and logjams in acute care.

There are other problems.

For example the pandemic has spread so far and wide in the world that we’ve long since lost any chance to corral the virus by public health measures and vaccination programs. That means this virus will be with us indefinitely and likely will continue to mutate.

So, we will face many more mutant variants, some of which may exist now but for lack of genomic testing, we don’t know about them. Several known variants are transmitted much more easily than the original virus and hence infect many more people and cause more deaths. And if that isn’t enough trouble, some variants, such as the South African and Brazilian versions, may be more lethal.

Those variants, and others yet to come, mean vaccines will need to be modified on the fly and, most important, must be cheap to manufacture in existing lower-tech facilities, much the way the flu vaccine is, by using chick embryos to create components of the spike protein.

The latter could be updated and revised versions of the spike protein used to quickly create new vaccines. Like the flu vaccine, we probably will need annual booster shots to keep COVID under control.

What’s ominous and worrying about this pandemic have been the many mistakes made by so many governments and even scientists – and still, almost a year and half later, the response has been inadequate and made worse by misinformation.

There are two viruses in this pandemic, the coronavirus and the speed with which misinformation has gone viral. And the latter may be almost as dangerous as the former.

Most of us are tired and frustrated by on-again, off-again lockdowns. That’s understandable. What’s not so easy to understand is the apparent willingness by some to aid and abet the spread of the virus by refusing to wear masks, keep their distance from others and compounding both, defiantly congregating in large groups.

Simple, proven health care measures have become politicized and, for some, declared infringements on their freedom.

And they are right. But freedom does not mean you can put others at risk and that’s what happens when people wilfully congregate without masks and distancing. The cost in deaths and suffering is "invisible" because it takes place out of sight in long-term care facilities and intensive care units. Perhaps that very invisibility makes it easier to ignore health care measures. That’s where leadership counts.

To confront misinformation, we need a Canadian version of the U.K.’s Boris Johnson. He has made his share of mistakes but at least provides regular highly publicized updates to his country after which a well-informed media and experts grill him and his ministers.

After all, the first duty of government to protect the people they govern and be seen doing so. When’s the last time we saw our PM do a Boris or Biden? I can’t remember – can you?

Lightly attended and viewed news conferences don’t do the job. There should have been and should be regular, highly publicized presentations with the relevant ministers and health experts there to testify and clarify. That’s the PM’s job. At least Ontario’s premier tries.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

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