Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11th, we have seen governments adopt different responses and measures to tackle the spread and mitigate its impact. The fact that these measures differ from country to country is to be expected—to a certain extent—but the fact that we are seeing such deviations when following expert guidelines raises questions about a lack of international coordination to tackle a worldwide pandemic, as well as a lack of transparency from individual governments about their own decisions.
After the pandemic was declared, many world leaders and their local health organizations talked about flattening the curve: using measures such as social-distancing immediately to delay the infections so that the health systems wouldn’t be overburdened at any given time, allowing patients needing care to be treated on a more gradual basis. In a press conference on March 12th, however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the U.K. would be taking a different approach: rather than asking its residents to stay at home at the present time, the self-isolation phase would be delayed until the pandemic hit its peak. Johnson and the U.K.’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, went on to explain that this was to avoid the public from suffering from behavioural fatigue by beginning the self-isolation process too early.
In perhaps the most contentious statement of the day, Valence later pointed out that roughly 60% of the population would need to be infected for herd immunity to be acquired in the population, which would in turn help prevent a resurgence of the outbreak. Many were quick to point out that herd immunity can only be used as a strategy if there is a vaccine—there isn’t one in the case of Covid-19—and criticized the plan, calling a gamble that would put many lives at risk.
In a piece for The Atlantic, Ed Yong points out that the blunder here—at least one of them—is that the strategy was so poorly explained: the goal would still be to flatten the curve, and herd immunity was just a possible consequence of that, not the intended aim to pursue aggressively.
On Monday March 16th, as the U.K. deaths related to Covid-19 jumped from 35 to 55 in a single day, Boris Johnson announced that stricter measures were going to be taken, urging over 70s to self-isolate and advising against any non-essential travel (contrary to many other countries, schools would remain open). This has inevitably raised the question, why not take those measures from the start? Taking a different approach only to backtrack a few days later suggests that the risk wasn’t quite paying off—and that this was realized very quickly. Furthermore, the risk that this gamble wouldn’t pay off was hardly unforeseeable, so why gamble at all?
As mentioned earlier, it is to be expected that nations will have different approaches when facing a pandemic; each country has its own set of hurdles after all, and their own distinctive set of circumstances and resources, but the lack of transparency in communicating these strategies is worrying regardless of individual national circumstances.
The U.K. is by no means the only country guilty of this. In Canada, several provinces (and even individual airports) were discouraged by the lack of federal measures and decided to take action themselves. On the same day the U.K. announced its stricter measures, and the same day the EU announced it would be closing its borders, Canada announced it would be shutting its borders, too, to everyone except for American citizens. For many reasons, this exemption struck many as motivated by factors other than the health of Canadian residents.
Health experts around the world agree that favouring immediate action over future hypotheticals is key when fighting an outbreak. No one is denying that there are a lot of uncertainties and that no plan of action is guaranteed to work, but we have experts and health organizations in place for a reason. If a country chooses to go their own way, the very least they could do is to be up front about their decision, transparent about the reasons why and offer the public a better explanation as to why they are choosing one strategy over another.
Updated at 17:16, March 17