I understand the frustration with old computer technology, but it seems to be a secondary issue to me. There was a looming crisis that was obvious since mid January 2020, but it didn't become "real" to some top public health officials until Mrs Trudeau was infected? That's a real problem that fancy new computers won't solve.

My brother and I were making bets during Lunar New Year dinner about how bad this novel coronavirus would be (he won - it was bad). We, just regular dudes who pay a bit of attention to the news, were tuned into this in mid-January. We were making personal preparations for disaster by February. What did the public health apparatus do to prepare?

It sounds like a lot of government departments sit around gathering data and holding meetings, but don't have the capacity or the mandate to take meaningful action to head off a looming crisis. Everyone is sitting around waiting for someone else to make a decision. This isn't just a public health problem either - this issue crops up all the time. We have passive institutions. If this crisis didn't light a fire under their butts, I don't know what will.

Expand full comment
Jun 17·edited Jun 17

What about the claims that:

- covid was never dangerous to healthy people under 60

- natural immunity from having had covid was superior to vaccine immunity

- the vaccines never prevented transmission

- the vaccines carried substantial risk of heart damage to young men

- masks never worked

- there is little evidence that lockdowns prevented infection, and that they did massive harm is obvious

- Canada, like many other developed nations, suffered little or no excess mortality in 2020, but substantial excess mortality in 2021 & 2022

- the main driver of covid case levels was seasonality, rather than NPIs

Were they discussed at the conference? Widely acknowledged even by govt "experts" as true, they pretty much destroy the argument for any part of Canada's covid response.

Instead of going after straw men and patting themselves on the back, perhaps attendees should have done some actual reflection on what they did.

Expand full comment

This piece may be your best. And a challenging piece to put together, given reports of hyper-partisanship and furrowed brow warning on the ills of today’s social media environment.

Some thoughts:

Broad policy consensus is Canada’s super power.

For example, it’s Pride Month. And you’d hardly know it. Unless you have friends or family in the seemingly endless number of celebrations or saw local media coverage, mostly along the lines of covering a music festival or Fall fair. Yes, there’s coverage of more serious aspects of Pride, but there’s also no media of the existential variety we first heard when all this began it capture the public’s and policymakers attention.

Same-sex marriage legislation, perhaps Paul Martin’s greatest legacy as Prime Minister, is less than twenty years ago - but we did get there early in comparison to others. Obama, for example.

You could fill a book with other examples of broad policy consensus. It’s pretty remarkable, given the length and breadth of the country and the people. To say nothing of the noisy neighbours. Or how we got our start as nations. And how we got to 40 million as one nation.

So I too remain struck by Joel. The ‘take X add politics you get politics’. But I will add this to the equation. Take X and add the politics of an uber efficient 31% of the popular vote, and you get politics designed to attack areas of broad consensus. It’s how you get a Minister tweeting insinuations that the Leader of the Opposition harbours anti-LGBT opinions. The same leader who’s adopted father is in a same-sex marriage. And you get other Ministers trolling Conservatives on other issues.

And before anyone goes ‘well what about the other guy’ on me, the Opposition Leader has yet to propose a platform, let alone govern. So slow your ‘soldiers in the street’ roll. Your turn is coming up.

This is about nearly eight years of a government working their vote down to the nub, leaning heavily one way and never leaning the other way. And packing everything into one political lens to suit their own electoral needs.

Today’s Canada is the durable and admirable result of an improbable idea. But our future is never certain. And I would argue that it is less certain with a government that labels it’s critics as foes and threats to other Canadians - consistently the ones who correspond to the support the government needs to hold to retain power. Canadians are not the for of other Canadians. They’re just the government’s critics. And the balance of evidence says that in Canada, it’s a good thing for governments have critics. It raises the level of the lake allowing all the boats float higher. Makes it more resilient.

Expand full comment

Thanks for the summary.

Glad that some pointed out that talking to all opposition parties and MPs in a crisis is pretty important.

In addition, listening to critics in the scientific field would have been helpful too. Are all criticisms and critics valid? No. But the scientists involved with the Great Barrington Declaration look to be closer to the truth than many health officials.

And traditional epidemic/pandemic response policies were often thrown out the window. Example: protecting the most vulnerable versus going China style and imposing restrictions on everyone.

Can Canada handle the next epidemic or pandemic? Well, looking at Covid and the opioid crisis I would definitely guess no.

Expand full comment

I wonder about the future impacts of hybrid working from home models for federal civil servants - but more so Parliamentary. In the case of Parliamentarians there seems to be a need for greater dialogue, informal face-to-face engagement, and a fulsome bipartisan effort to counterbalance polarized social media.

Expand full comment

I’m glad that there was an open discussion of how partisan advantage crept into a pandemic. In my opinion, this partisanship was in the picture pretty much right from the start. Perhaps this is because the reflex instincts of the Trudeau Government are to demonize and weaponize through talking points to suit the 24/7 news cycles. This tendency manifests itself through lunacy like accusing those who wanted flights to and from China cancelled every nasty name and then losing precious time figuring out how to close the air space because it was the right thing to do.

It’s worth pondering what kind of pandemic Canada would have had with a strong administration full of Cabinet Ministers who knew their files and could get things done. A government that knew how to consult and LISTEN.

Instead Canadians had to suffer through a pandemic with the most secretive, opaque and partisan federal government in recent times running the show. It’s hard to imagine Chrétien, Harper or Martin dreaming up a scheme to pay students to volunteer.

Expand full comment

Interesting article for sure. But for me, living and working in Ottawa, nothing is surprising here at all. A group of people who all owe their jobs to the prevailing narrative and to the Liberal government getting together to compare notes is not very interesting to me, despite Chatham House rules. What on earth would you really expect?

You mention you believe Covid-19 occurred naturally. This is a leap I believe and I would love to see you write a column after reviewing the recent statements coming from the US Government about this matter. It seems to me that they are pretty sure it was “manufactured” in Wuhan through gain-of-function research that the US Government helped finance; and “probably” so did Canada (again, please find out for us readers why 2 Chinese scientists were evicted from Canada, having worked in Winnipeg where our Level 4 Lab is located with the Liberal government ignoring Parliament’s demands for the facts as to their eviction.) That the Government ignored Parliament, a fact that has never before occurred in our country, is simply too suggestive that our Government was complicit.

I thought this at the time, but now with the Johnston fiasco behind and before us, I believe there was just too much truth to the speculation at the time that Canada too, was involved in the gain-of-function research taking place in Wuhan. And our Government contracting for a Chinese vaccine, to be manufactured in Canada under license even though we had no functioning facilities to do so, to my mind, supports the logic. How any Cabinet could approve such a deal is simply beyond me. Canadians needed a vaccine immediately, at the time, and because of this decision we were at the back of the line and many, many Canadians suffered.

To be clear, Paul, I am not suggesting for a moment that this virus was released on purpose. It was, I believe, an accident. Period. But no comment at the meeting you attended on this matter?

So my plea to you, as one of your earliest subscribers, is that you do the messy leg-work on the US reports and others, never mind the Barrington Declaration, and write up your findings for us. If they confirm your current view, fine, but at least write about it. The meeting of all the establishment in Ottawa would not be helpful here. None of them under any set of rules would be so foolish as to speak of this as a possibility never mind Canada’s own role in it all.

Sorry for the lengthy response. And keep up the good work.

Expand full comment

I do believe a public post mortem on the strengths/weaknesses of our collective governments’ response to Covid is warranted, if not, a necessity for what will surely be future challenges. If I have a lingering thought it is a belief that, generally, our government failed to show humility- “we are in unchartered territory, we will stumble”, compassion- we acknowledge these are onerous, exacting measures, and most importantly did not seize the opportunity to galvanize our nation in an unified literal fight for our lives.

Expand full comment

Thanks for the thoughtful article. My take (stand?): the virus is real. The government initially responded effectively with Canadians interests in mind. The vaccines were also real and effective, if not a complete solution. The virus continually surprised and required adaptive strategies. Later, both the government and those who did not believe the virus was a real threat acted politically. But viruses don't care what you believe, and only a little about how you behave. The next virus will itself behave differently and these lessons will be a reference, not a solution. The most effective response - the one that moves humans most quickly back to a normal existence - may well require understanding and sacrifice. A challenge awaits.

Expand full comment
Jun 19Liked by Paul Wells

Thanks Paul, as always, thoughtful, intelligent and, most importantly, based on reporting. Substack is great, I pay for several writers, but none (sorry The Line) go much beyond punditry. Your writing is always informed by actually talking to the people you’re writing about. I learn more here than almost anywhere else. And you make the nerdy policy stuff relevant and interesting.

Expand full comment

I would like to see a neutral, careful study of Sweden's response - did they really not lockdown as I've heard? Did they really not close schools at all? Did school children never wear masks? Was their Covid rate roughly the same as ours?

Expand full comment

This much I know for sure, I would not have had the patience to sit through the "Learning from Canada's COVID-19 Pandemic" conference. Kudos to you. My take on the government's handling of the pandemic would have been one of those using the "terribly" descriptor, and that would then place me with one of those folks the conference attendees describe as having a "misunderstanding of what happened."

Because from my vantage point, this is what happened. The government initially dithered whether COVID would even be a concern for Canadians. Remember how they criticized the U.S. for restricting travellers from China for fear of transmission. Later, of course, Canada too restricted travellers from China and other countries from entering Canada. Canada dithered whether or not masks would be necessary and doubted whether they would be effective. Later they were mandated.

Over time we learned, much to our surprise that those of us who were vaccinated, and boosted, we could still catch and transmit the virus. My argument is then it does not provide immunity which is a criteria to being identified as a vaccine. Nevertheless statistics for Ontario tell the tale regarding the "vaccine". Among those individuals who were hospitalized due to COVID, higher percentage of the unvaccinated ended up in the ICU. The "vaccine" may not have provided immunity, but odds were it would result in one being less ill. We also know that the vaccines did not provide the herd immunity as touted by the government.

The Prime Minister said in January 2021 that mandating vaccines through a vaccine passport would be unfair and divisive. A few weeks later he imposed those unfair and divisive mandates, and so it came to be that without proof of vaccine one could not take public transit, enter restaurants, movie theatres, etc.

In early 2020 we were all complaining that the government was ill-prepared and did not have a plan in place to handle a pandemic. As much as I am uneasy about opening old wounds, there is certainly merit in conferences as the one you describe, if in the end the government is prompted to take steps toward formulating a plan of preparedness in the event of another pandemic. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!"

Expand full comment

Not sure if you follow Public on here but they published an article this week that makes a case for a lab leak theory. It is fascinating to me how people pick a side and tend to stick there....who knows who or what to believe anymore.


Expand full comment

Paul - was there any discussion of the many pandemic plans for flu or coronaviruses that governments had pre-‘20? The ones I’ve read (like the 2019 WHO plan) don’t recommend locking down. Indeed, they look more like focussed protection.

Expand full comment

Anybody remember that thing in the Stephen King novels about Derry, where everybody forgets the impossibly horrible thing that just happened, IT or whatever?

I think the "lessons learned" from the pandemic, would include "go back to those 1990s and 2000s reports on care-homes, and follow them."

And, I note that the word "care", my computer assures me, does not appear in article or comments. I didn't have to type "home". We forgot, already. This is Derry.

I think that "Maybe our society should value even the last years of lives enough to hire a few more care-aides, like we keep promising to" could be a statement that vaxxer and anti- alike could sign on with. And the High and Mighty at the great meeting could have swept out of the way in the first hour.

Expand full comment

Thanks so much for covering this, Paul. With the lingering death of mainstream reporting, more and more we're forced to go to original sources. I would like to read the series of articles Policy Options wrote on this topic, but one can only have so many hobbies.

I'm wondering if people spoke about the lack of data. Waste water monitoring was a godsend but for the most part we were proceeding with our lives, or not, without having a good understanding of the level of risk in our community. It amazed me that public health units didn't immediately randomly select people to track the progress of the virus, its symptoms and spread, over time, adjusting for different cohorts (front line vs work from home; families with school kids vs not) to provide statistically significant insights.

Expand full comment