Lockdowns, Distancing, and Face Masks – Better Sorry Than Safe?

With non-pharmaceutical interventions against SARS-CoV-2, we are pursuing futile precaution at the cost of focused protection.

In an interview for the documentary “Planet Lockdown”, retired epidemiologist Dr. Knut Wittkowski mentions the subtitle of the famous play, “The Barber of Seville”. The subtitle “The Futile Precaution” refers to the literary theme of an older man’s useless attempts to prevent his young wife or love interest from running away with a younger man. The non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — lockdowns, “social” distancing, and face-covering — mandated to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 increasingly feel like such a futile attempt at stopping a respiratory virus from running its course. As Dr. Wittkowski notes, “we have seen that theme be played on the largest stage possible, the entire world!”

To cope with the “world … gone bonkers” (quoted from Dr. Malcolm Kendrick), I signed up for daily emails from one-of-a-kind libertarian Tom Woods. His confident bashing of “lockdown supporters” has been quite uplifting among the dissonance of zealous-hysterical fear-mongering found across the (social) media. For months now, Woods has been promoting the work of twitterer Ian Miller. Miller shares graphs of daily new “COVID-19 cases” for different countries, US states and counties, and the occasional Canadian province, with markers for noteworthy policy changes such as the beginning and end of mask mandates; public news and statements about mask effectiveness; or major holidays or sports events that were expected to result in “spikes” of cases. The graphs unfailingly show no difference between the curves of states that pursued different approaches; no outbreaks after the lifting of lockdowns and mask mandates; but conversely epidemic curves increasing dramatically despite government restrictions. A small selection is shown here.

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The University and the Vaccine

Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, just announced its Fall 2021 return-to-campus procedures. The decision that “vaccines will not be mandatory“, which is highlighted in the title of the announcement, is a welcome distinction from certain other universities’ approaches. For example, under the guise of “safety first”, Western University in London, Ontario, “mandates vaccinations for students in residence“, noting possible exemptions under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the University of Toronto requires students to have at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to provide a “safe and welcoming residence experience” (no exceptions mentioned). Unfortunately, my university just announced a 180-degree turn from last week and followed its big sister across town to require vaccines for students living in residence on campus. Our spokesperson is quoted saying “This measure is necessary to support students’ safety, growth and development“.

Brock University – announcement of Fall 2021 return to campus procedures, https://brocku.ca/brock-news/2021/06/fall-update-planning-continues-for-return-to-campus-vaccines-will-not-be-mandatory/

Does a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine really provide a “safe and welcoming residence experience” and contribute to “safety, growth and development” of our students? It may indeed bestow a feeling of safety, which I argue is misconstrued as a consequence of persistent, possibly willful, ignorance of the science behind the vaccine trials and an outdated COVID-19 risk assessment.

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Every Death Counts, Not Just COVID Deaths

Canada’s 2020 mortality in perspective

Throughout 2020, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, in charge of Sweden’s moderate response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, kept pointing to the longterm collateral damage caused by lockdowns and saying that the year-end excess mortality would be the earliest metric to assess the success or failure of the “Swedish model”, as compared to what we might call the “Chinese model” based on the origin of lockdown measures. Many a lockdown skeptic has been waiting for the annual mortality statistics, only to find out that even something as seemingly straightforward as recording deaths isn’t without challenges and delays, and moreover that the concept of “excess mortality” is anything but definitive.

Let’s examine mortality trends for Canada. Most of the data sources and graphs included here were inspired by Twitter user @Milhouse_Van_Ho, who has prepared and shared series of COVID-19 statistics for Toronto, Ontario, Quebec, and all of Canada since April 2020, and whose contributions to an evidence-based discussion of the virus threat and suitable response measures I want to gratefully acknowledge. Statistics Canada wrote about “Excess mortality in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic” in August 2020, explaining that measuring excess mortality requires an accurate death count as well as “some way to determine the number of deaths that would be expected to be observed were there no pandemic”. Without giving details, they suggest that Canada is using an estimate that takes longer-term trends into account. And, “In the Canadian context, with an aging and growing population, the number of deaths has been steadily increasing over recent years and so a higher number of deaths in 2020 would be expected regardless of COVID-19.”

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L’enfer c’est les autres, mais l’état c’est personne…

The New Public Health: Goodbye, common-sense compassionate care and social justice, and welcome, state-ordered child abuse.

In Sartre’s play “Huit Clos”, three individuals find themselves quarantined post-mortem in a room that serves as hell. They turn on each other to the point where the protagonist laments “l’enfer c’est les autres”. I won’t claim that I even begin to understand the existentialist nuances of these words, yet the superficial meaning of “hell is other people” is becoming more and more evident in the corona crisis.

My brilliant girlfriend had just made me aware of the Sartre quote that fits so well with the new hotel quarantine procedures for travellers returning home to Canada. But then the public health authority of our neighbouring Region of Peel raised the bid even higher. In a flyer summarizing what to do when a child is sent home after exposure to COVID-19 (e.g. because of a classmate with a positive test), they literally wrote:

“The child must self-isolate, which means:
• Stay in a separate bedroom
• Eat in a separate room apart from others
• Use a separate bathroom, if possible
• If the child must leave their room, they should wear a mask and stay 2 metres apart from others”

Source: Peel Region child dismissed protocol, posted at https://peelregion.ca/coronavirus/_media/child-dismissed-protocol-en.pdf until 28 February 2021

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Honey, I Shrunk the Economy

We Are in a Public Emergency Situation – Health Scientists Are Not Qualified to Lead the Response

According to a March 2 press release by the Government of Ontario, “A new Command Table will be the single point of oversight providing executive leadership and strategic direction to guide Ontario’s response to COVID-19.” The Command Table, whose membership has never been disclosed, reports to the Minister of Health, Christine Elliott. The Ministry’s existing Emergency Operations Centre “will continue to provide situational awareness and perform an overall coordination function”. Yet, the Minister, along with the Province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Williams, and municipal and regional MOHs such as Toronto’s Dr. Eileen de Villa, are the public faces of the pandemic response and use their powers to order sweeping restrictions on everyday live. The March 2 press release is clearly focused on the health and medical side, promising to “Safeguard [the] Public from COVID-19” and “Ensure Health System Readiness”.

While this singular focus may have been appropriate in the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, doubts have started to emerge as early as March 2020 and continue to grow. In a May 12 post titled “Corona Crisis – Tunnel Vision vs Comprehensive Risk Assessment“, I summarized a leaked report — known as the “false alarm paper” — from Germany’s crisis management specialist Stephan Kohn, in which the author argues that “a new crisis situation should be declared and the out-of-control pandemic crisis management itself be battled”. In “We Have a Different Emergency Than You Think“, an anonymous blogger and self-identified business professional provides a brief but scathing assessment of the Ontario government’s situation assessment and emergency response capabilities. He recommends listening to Canadian emergency management experts, at least two of whom have spoken up about the corona crisis: David Redman and Alex Vezina.

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Brave New Covidworld?

Today’s the day that my first-ever newspaper op-ed is published. I argue that “Canada’s current pandemic response isn’t supported by the facts“. The working title of the op-ed was “Brave New Covidworld?”, inspired by a brilliant paper by British philosophers Ian James Kidd and Matthew Ratcliffe. In “Welcome to Covidworld“, they raise many of the same concerns with the global pandemic response that I reiterate in the op-ed and that many clear-thinking academics, health scientists, professionals, and other citizens have developed since March 2020. For example, I maintain a short list of dissenting Canadian doctors’ voices published in the mainstream media, see MSHFD.ca. These reasonable critics are largely ignored though, and that is a problem.

Source: https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-canadas-current-pandemic-response-isnt-supported-by-the-facts
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Understanding Risk – Ordered Weighted Averaging and Relative vs Absolute Risk Reduction

One of my students has just completed an individual research paper on “Investigating the use of GIS-Based Ordered Weighted Averaging in Wildfire Restoration”. Ordered Weighted Averaging (OWA) is a multi-criteria decision analysis technique that allows the decision-maker to mathematically define their attitude towards risk. The available strategies range from risk-averse to risk-taking approaches, based on a simple parameter setting. That parameter determines whether we emphasize the negative or positive aspects of a possible solution. Under a risk-averse strategy, we focus on the worst aspects and choose the solution that has the “least bad” outcomes. Under a risk-taking strategy, we focus on the best aspects and choose the solution with the “greatest good” outcome. The OWA also allows any number of strategies between these extremes, including an intermediate approach under which emphasis is balanced between the strong and weak outcomes.

Decision strategies defined by the ordered weighted averaging (OWA) technique. Source: Ron Eastman, Directions Magazine 14 Dec 2000, https://www.directionsmag.com/article/4036
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It’s 2009 All Over Again …

A new “killer virus”, global panic, squandered public monies, and a rushed vaccine—déjà vu from the swine flu pandemic

The Council of Europe blasts the World Health Organization and national governments around the globe for the handling of the pandemic. Their report cites “overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly over-rated by WHO, which led to a distortion of public health priorities.” The British Labour politician and author of the report, Paul Flynn, is cited with the comment: “This was a pandemic that never really was.”The pandemic in question is the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the quote is from a 2010 article in the British Medical Journal. The concerns at the time focused on undue influence by big pharma companies on the WHO, which led to poor decision-making and excessive spending by many countries on unnecessary anti-viral drugs and vaccines. By early 2010, Mr. Flynn apparently filed a motion in the UK Parliament to deplete left over Tamiflu pill stockpiles by using them as winter road salt.

Cover page of Council of Europe report on the handling of the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Source: http://www.assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2010/20100329_MemorandumPandemie_E.pdf
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The Divided States of Coronamerica: How Big is too Big?

For coronaphobics and lockdown believers, the United States serve as the poster child for how not to handle the pandemic. The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard (Fig. 1) shows cumulative “case” counts by US counties using proportional circles – a suitable cartographic choice, although the bright red colour on dark background is questionable, as discussed elsewhere. The ten-and-a-half million cumulative cases and nearly a quarter-million deaths as of November 10th, place the US at the top of the COVID-19 world rankings. But are these numbers actually big? And what can we gather from the spatial pattern of cases?

Figure 1: The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard zoomed to the United States. Source: screenshot from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.
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Science is Dead – Long Live “The” Science?

This year, politicians, public health officials, journalists, and even our Facebook friends are urging us to listen to “the” data, trust “the” evidence, and follow “the” science with respect to COVID-19. Yet, each of these groups feel entitled to select which data, evidence, and science they elevate to the royal rank of “the” data, evidence, and science. A quick reflection or a look at an encyclopedia (online or otherwise!) will reveal that science is a never-ending process of asking questions, making observations, structuring ideas, hypothesizing explanations, conducting experiments, and drawing preliminary conclusions that inevitably raise more questions to be researched. In complex systems and processes such as infectious disease spread, the data and evidence resulting from the scientific method, and the underlying models and theories, may never be conclusive, and as such it is foolish and misleading to speak of “the” one science guiding us through the corona crisis.

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