On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
The rapid spread of a novel coronavirus and “alarming levels of inaction” by governments gave cause for grave concern, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said then.
“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.
“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission,” he said at the time.
And so the phrase, “because of the pandemic,” entered our collective lexicon.
The global count that day: 18,000 confirmed cases and 4,291 deaths.
WHO’s latest numbers to date: 450 million confirmed cases and, a new sad milestone this week, more than six million deaths.
It has been a long two years.
Last summer, we turned to some of Western’s top researchers on viruses, health, medicine, ethics, education, equity and technology for a digital storytelling package examining some of the pandemic’s challenges and possibilities.
Western News recently invited those researchers to look back and look forward, and answer these two questions:
What is one important (or unexpected) lesson we’ve learned the past two years?
What big lesson do we still have to learn and what aspect(s) of our lives are most likely to become part of a new normal?
Kate Choi, demographer and director of the Centre for Research on Social Inequality
The most important lesson that we learned during the pandemic is that our health and well-being as a society depend largely on the health and well-being of the most vulnerable. This was best evinced with issues surrounding the distribution of vaccines. Inequities in vaccine access resulted in the emergence of variants and prolonged this pandemic.
In the new normal, our ability to be successful will entail collecting more data, conducting sound scientific analyses, and enacting evidence-based policies that can address the symptoms and the causes of social problems.
Our ability to be successful in the new normal entails developing sustainable and equitable policies that deliver tailored solutions to those with distinct amounts of resources and distinct needs, and moving away from one-size-fits-all policy solutions.
Maxwell Smith, bioethicist and co-director of Western’s Health Ethics, Law, & Policy (HELP) lab
An unexpected lesson for me is that some aspects of pandemic preparedness may have less value than I previously thought. For the past 10 to 15 years, I have been involved in research that engaged the Canadian public on pandemic-related issues, including the ethics of using quarantine and isolation measures, how to fairly distribute scarce resources like vaccines and ventilators, and vaccination mandates.
A common refrain was that it’s better to be thinking through these issues and engaging the public and policymakers in advance during the ‘preparedness’ phase since there will be limited opportunity to do so in the midst of an acute crisis. Yet, when confronted with these issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was little appetite to learn from and deploy lessons from this important preparedness work. Because a broader public was now becoming aware of the issues and had not contributed to research or thinking conducted during the preparedness phase, we had little choice but to re-visit these questions, research and engagement. I’m no longer convinced that doing this sort of preparedness work will necessarily help us avoid having to do it during the acute phase of pandemic response anyway.
New normal: We’ve experienced a very public reckoning over governments’ use of measures to protect and promote the public’s health. Powers and responsibilities that were once taken for granted, or that were entirely unknown to much of the public, have now been made very evident and subjected to public scrutiny, which, at times, has been rather impoverished. Consequently, I fear that part of a ‘new normal’ may include increased opposition to measures that have a long pedigree of keeping people safe and healthy, including vaccination mandates in schools, fluoridation in municipal drinking water, and air-quality improvement measures. Our new normal may involve an undoing of decades of successes in keeping people safe and healthy.
Adrian Owen, neuroscientist and professor at Western’s Brain & Mind Institute
Lesson learned: Never assume you have reached the top of the mountain until you are down the other side. When we launched our COVID study [of ‘brain fog’ following COVID infection] back in the summer of 2020, there were eight million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. We scrambled to get the study up and running in case we “missed our window.” To date, there have been 446 million cases worldwide and in most countries the pandemic is still going strong. I am glad we got going when we did because we have learned so much, but if we’d known back then what we know now, we’d have set about designing the study completely differently.
Lesson to learn: Based on our findings and how things are playing out as we enter the third year of this pandemic, I think we still have to learn that for many, it won’t be over even when it’s over. Many people are facing ongoing challenges to their physical, cognitive and mental health following recovery from COVID-19 infection, and we don’t yet know whether these will resolve with time, whether they could permanently affect people’s ongoing health, or even whether they might lead to further complications down the line. Even if we assume that these long-term consequences affect only a tiny minority of those infected, it could still add up to hundreds of thousands of people who may not be able to return to their jobs, or carry out their normal activities of daily living, with potentially massive societal and economic consequences.
Nadine Wathen, Canada Research Chair in Mobilizing Knowledge on Gender-Based Violence
Sadly, we’ve learned that the inequities and structural and systemic violence in our society run so deep that they shaped every aspect of our response, and non-response, to the pandemic. We saw race, intertwined with poverty and poor work and living conditions, as a key driver of COVID-19 deaths – you’re far more likely to die of COVID-19 in Canada if you’re not white and you live on low income. We saw overdose deaths from toxic street drugs soar, homelessness rise, and violence against women and children reach what the UN director-general called “horrifying” levels. This January, 20 women and girls were killed in Canada, most by a male family member.
And now these harms are spilling outwards as we see whole professional groups, often highly gendered, like teaching and nursing, being crushed under the weight of both bad policy (for example, flipping back and forth to online and in-person teaching; cuts to pay for nurses while increasing demands for overtime; and working while sick because there’s no or very limited paid sick leave) and increased child and elder caregiving as both the education and long-term care systems failed in their duties of care.
The takeaway is that until we take a good, hard look at the way we’ve organized society and decide on more equitable and less harmful ways to provide supports for everyone, especially those whom we’ve marginalized, things won’t get much better. This pandemic has given us the data and the stories to see very clearly where the problems lie – the question is whether we have the courage to do anything about it.
Anwar Haque, computer science professor and telecommunications industry expert
Lesson learned: During the pandemic, we were able to mitigate the economic impact to a great extent by continuing to work remotely and keep connected to the world. Also, almost all businesses were able to offer their services online during one of the most challenging times the human race ever encountered – thanks to advanced information and communication technologies, infrastructures, and computing tools that made this possible. However, we also learned the technical limitations of these technologies and tools.
Lesson to learn: The time has come to invest in the research to make these great technologies even better, more effective, and develop new tools to be better prepared and equipped for the next unprecedented event.