Rupa Subramanya: Why is Canada dragging its feet on getting back to normal from COVID?

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In the United States, most of President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandates have been gutted by the courts and lie in tatters. states have rolled back pandemic restrictions wholly or in large measure. That leaves Canada, which continues to be an outlier in terms of the severity and longevity of COVID-related rules, restrictions and mandates. Federal mandates as they relate to the civil service, and arriving at the Canadian border, remain in place.

While several provinces, including Ontario, have lifted most restrictions, Quebec has retained its mask mandate, which is slated to be lifted only in the middle of May. Municipalities such as Ottawa, where most people never saw a rule they didn’t like, were threatening to reimpose mask mandates by looking at wastewater signals, which seem to have miraculously come down without anyone doing anything. However, such alarm bells resulted in some institutions, such as Carleton University and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, deciding to retain the mask mandate even though the province had lifted its restrictions. A January study published in the Lancet, a top peer-reviewed medical journal, itself citing previous research, argues that «the impact of vaccination on community transmission of circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2 appeared to be not significantly different from the impact among unvaccinated people.» A more recent study, from this past month, in the pre-print stage, so not yet peer-reviewed, finds that, «Omicron-infected patients who had received a third vaccine dose had viral loads similar to patients with two doses or who were unvaccinated».

In other words, the key assumption that drives the results of Fisman’s study appears increasingly contradicted by real world empirical studies. Without this assumption, the model’s results and its conclusion in favour of vaccine mandates totally fall apart. Yet the paper excited the commenting class because it appeared to lend scientific support for continuing vaccine mandates. In sensible places, public policy is informed by data-based analysis, which crunches actual real world numbers and runs counterfactual experiments to come up with policy recommendations.

Models based on theory alone are useful in fixing our intuitions about causal mechanisms, but by themselves cannot be meaningful guidelines for policy, unless they’re combined with real world data that backs up their theoretical assumptions. To be a useful guide for policymakers, theory must be backed up with solid, real world empirical evidence. Recall that Quebec, while lifting its vaccine mandate like Ontario, chose to retain its mask mandate. The truth is that, unlike most places in the world, many Canadians, both policymakers and the public, seem unwilling to move on from the pandemic and return to life as usual.

In a country known for a culture of compliance, there’s been a serious lack of leadership, especially at the level of the federal government, in signalling in no uncertain terms that we are now in the last lap of the pandemic. Instead, ambiguous messaging and keeping federal vaccine mandates in force for the indefinite future only serve to keep the populace in a state of fear and anxiety.

Source: Rupa Subramanya | NP

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