Letter to the editor 4, June 18, 2020

Why I Don’t Plan to Attend Book Club in June:

Dear Editor,

Our book club has had three monthly meetings via Zoom. In May we decided optimistically to plan for a face-to-face meeting this month. Here’s why I’ve decided not to attend:

It would be great to meet in person this month but, on reflection, I feel that it would also be imprudent. This is a personal decision, but perhaps I should mention some factors that shape my thinking.

  • Epidemiologists seem to have limited info on how the virus spreads – particularly on the rate of infections arising from contacts with people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers.

  • This lack of data seems particularly troubling in Quebec where the government has made no systematic effort to test the population at large. Lack of data on the general population means that official policies are largely based on guesswork. This is particularly troubling since other jurisdictions – Alberta, South Korea, Germany – have shown how virus testing can shape effective policy.

  • Scientists have no clear idea of the timing, severity, and distribution of the second wave – only a general belief that it’s almost certain to arrive. It’s possible that "the regions" (of which we are a part) will experience micro-bursts of infection now that social distancing has been relaxed.

  • Official policies are heavily influenced by factors other than public health – the wish to reopen the economy ASAP being one example. This leads to hasty and risky compromises. My guess is that no adult in Montreal should have been allowed back to work, or into public spaces, except on condition of wearing a mask. Period.

  • Given the lack of systematic testing, there are many uncertainties about how the virus has spread over the last three months. Added to that uncertainty about the past, the consequences of present-day decisions are hard to discern because there is at least a two-week delay between a change in the rules, and the future consequences.

  • Humans are not very good at perceiving patterns over large populations and extended periods, especially when there are strong disconnects between past and present behaviours and future consequences. Epidemiology is the remedy for that problem, but scientists have not had the data they require.

  • Recent policies and messages from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the federal and provincial governments have betrayed confusion on these matters. A fundamental tenet of policy leadership during an epidemic is consistent and convincing messaging. (As with hurricane warnings, the goal is to convince people to change their behaviour before they see an urgent need to do so.) Compared to the messaging chaos south of the border, we’ve been better off, but not as much as we should be.

Be well everyone,

Donald Attwood


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