Early in the Covid 19 pandemic, it was argued that academic freedom needed to be limited, perhaps even suspended entirely, because “[w]e are dealing with a literal life-or-death matter and need to deal with it quickly” (Dea, 2020). Dr. Dea’s position is representative of that of many university administrators and faculty. Academics who want to suspend academic freedom, at least partly, during the Covid-19 pandemic seem to make three crucial assumptions: (1) Public Health experts are in a better epistemic position than non-experts. They know what must be done and, in the public interest, they should not be challenged. (2) Experts generally agree with each other about the best course of action. (3) Experts will always use their knowledge in the public’s best interest.
Below, I challenge those assumptions and argue that academic freedom is needed now more than ever to end the quasi-religious dogma that has replaced rigorous Covid-19 debates. This is especially the case if one accepts the following premise: Covid-19 is a dangerous pandemic that requires a comprehensive public health response (such as school closures and lockdowns) and justifies interference with personal freedoms (such as mandatory vaccination). Especially the case of British Columbia will show that instead of keeping the public safe, the quasi-religious trust in public health officials has led to serious problems.
Let’s begin with a very incomplete list of pronouncements by the WHO, governments, and public health officials allegedly informed by the best available science. None of these claims was accurate:
January 14, 2020; The World Health Organization tweets, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus” (2019-nCoV).
January 29, 2020; Dr. Bonnie Henry says, “Risk from the novel coronavirus is low for British Columbians” (Henry, 2020a).
January 30, 2020; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, “Our experience with SARS in 2003 meant that we created protocols and a system that is handling the concerns around this [Covid-19] threat very, very well. That’s why the threat to Canadians remains low here in Canada” (Trudeau, 2020).
March 30, 2020; Dr. Theresa Tam says, “What we worry about is actually the potential negative aspects of wearing masks … that [it] gives you a false sense of confidence, but also it increases the touching of your face. … [and] removing a mask … can actually lead to infection” (Tam, 2020).
June 23, 2020; Dr. Bonnie Henry says, “Evidence mounts that children are highly unlikely to contract or pass on COVID-19 to adults” (Henry, 2020b).
December 30, 2020; Dr. Bonnie Henry says, “Given what we know about the virus, we’re looking at 60 to 70% of the population being immune to prevent transmission widely in the community” (Henry, 2020d).
June 3, 2021; Dr. Anthony Fauci says, “Having about 50% of adults fully vaccinated and about 62% of adults having received at least one dose across the US as a whole means “as a nation, I feel fairly certain you’re not going to see the kind of surges we’ve seen in the past” (Fauci, 2021).
August 5, 2021; Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says, “[Dr. Deena] Hinshaw and her team’s recommendations to lift health measures [such as ending contact tracing and mandatory quarantine for Covid-19 patients] are "in line with the science” (Shandro, 2021).
One might be tempted to respond that this list of inaccurate claims actually supports our trust in science. Science does not provide certainty and, as new evidence became available, science corrected the inaccurate claims. However, this wasn’t the case. No scientific evidence could have supported the WHO tweet. Justin Trudeau’s assertion was not informed by science but, at best, by wishful thinking. Dr. Tam changed her recommendation about masks because of pressure from the concerned public. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Henry only adjusted their claims about herd immunity when it had already become obvious to the public that they had been wrong. Dr. Hinshaw changed her recommendations after intense pressure from the public.
In these (and many other) cases, the blind trust in science and authority advocated by Dr. Dea allowed uncritical acceptance of incorrect claims. Because evidence that challenged the accepted dogma was ignored and/or derided, the time it took to correct those incorrect claims increased significantly. That had serious consequences for global economies (early lockdowns could have avoided the global spread of the Covid-19 virus) and the health and lives of millions (as of September 16, 2021, there have been at least 227,056,250 Covid-19 cases worldwide and 4,670,256 Covid-19 related deaths).
Let’s turn now to a case where recommendations of health authorities conflicted with “established science”: the ever-changing public health recommendations about the best time frame between the first and second dose of Covid-19 vaccines in B.C. Based on their clinical studies, Pfizer-BioNTech had recommended giving the second dose of the vaccine between 21 and 35 days after the first dose. Below are a select few of the recommendations issued by B.C.’s top public health officials.
January 21, 2021; Dr. Bonnie Henry: “To date, two vaccines have been approved for use by Health Canada (Pfizer and Moderna). Both require two doses for maximum protection – administered roughly 35 days apart” (Henry 2021a).
March 1, 2021; Dr. Bonnie Henry said “…these vaccines work, they give a very high level of protection and that protection lasts for many months … [and] there is an immune response benefit to lengthening the time between doses [to 4 months]” (Henry 2021b).
March 23, 2021; Pfizer-BioNTech issues a statement saying, “There are no data [from our Phase 3 study] to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days.
July 27, 2021; Dr. Bonnie Henry says, “For most people, about six to eight weeks between doses is best” (Henry 2021c).
Virtually all the changes in Dr. Henry’s recommendations were prompted by changes in vaccine availability. Of course, public health officials had to adjust the vaccination schedule when there was a severe vaccine shortage. But Dr. Henry insisted that the adjustment was also based on science (longer intervals lead to better protection). This claim was contradicted by Pfizer-BioNTech and later, when supply increased, by Dr. Henry herself. The repeated adjustments of the time frames might have served the public. But the invocation of science presumably led to a further increase in skepticism towards health authorities at a time when vaccine hesitancy was already on the rise.
Finally, I look at the most disturbing case from the B.C. Covid-19 response: Dr. Henry’s recommendations concerning public schools. As in other provinces, schools remained closed in B.C. after the 2020 March Break. But already in May 2020, “B.C. schools began holding voluntary in-person classes … We were the only jurisdiction in Canada that brought students back into the classroom provincewide before the end of the school year” (Fleming, 2020). In July 2020 it was decided that B.C. schools would reopen for full-time in-class attendance by students from kindergarten to Grade 12 on September 8 2020.
To a large degree, this decision was based on Dr. Henry’s assertion “that based upon data, younger children are less likely to be infected or to spread the virus whereas older children often don’t get severe infections but are able to pass the virus on to others” (Henry, 2020c). Concerns expressed by teachers, staff, students, and parents prompted the change to a gradual restart of the 2020-21 school year. But this was mostly a delay, and by October 2020 most kids had returned to in class instruction. In spite of continued reassurances by Dr. Henry that schools are safe, by the end of December 2020 the school exposure list was alarmingly long (Judd, 2020).
Concerns about the safety of school-aged children grew, and in early January 2021 a petition asking that Dr. Bonnie Henry extend the winter break for all B.C. students and make a new plan on how to safely return to school had gathered well over 65,000 signatures. Dr. Henry was unmoved and schools reopened as scheduled. As Covid-19 case numbers steadily increased, transparency from Dr. Henry’s office decreased. By April 2021 the paternalistic approach of Dr. Henry’s office had attracted national attention: “Public health … needs to be transparent with people and treat them like grown-ups and show them what your decisions are based on and be open to the possibility you may not be right about everything” (Fisman 2021a).
It took a “data leak” (reported first by Griffith, 2021a) to force Dr. Henry to finally share with the public details about case counts and vaccination numbers at the neighborhood level. While those data were available elsewhere in Canada, they had never been publicized in B.C. Neither Dr. Henry nor second in command Dr. Reka Gustafson owned up to the paternalistic approach they had taken: “Henry insisted that the majority of the data shown in the leaked reports is already released, albeit not in the same format. Gustafson added the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has limited staff with big workloads, suggesting they don’t have time for various presentations of the data” (Daflos & Holliday, 2021). Having access to those data earlier would have shown the public and school officials the close correlation between Covid-19 hotspots and public school district boundaries. Instead, teachers, students, and parents were mostly left in the dark until the virus had spread through their communities.
By June 2021 Dr. Henry had become so accustomed to her role as omniscient and omnipotent public health authority that she confidently rejected findings of a peer-reviewed report by epidemiologists and science researchers from Moriarty Labs at the University of Toronto that the number of Covid-19 related deaths in B.C. were twice as high as reported: “I don’t agree with what that report has come out with” (Henry, 2021). Dr. Henry’s actions have become so problematic that University of Toronto professor of epidemiology David Fisman applied the phrase “decision-based evidence-making in BC” (Fisman, 2021b).
Even though more and more scientific evidence suggests that children get infected with Covid-19 and pass on the virus, many British Columbians still trust Dr. Henry’s assurance that our children are safe in schools. To a large degree this is possible because of the testing practices implemented by Dr. Henry. The main focus of Covid-19 tests performed in B.C. remains on people who have Covid-19 symptoms. This approach will miss many infected children because most children have either no symptoms or atypical symptoms. Furthermore, when children infect parents or other caregivers, B.C. testing practices will often misidentify the parent/caregiver as the primary infection.
UK epidemiologist Dr. Deepti Gurdasani claims that her findings show that an approach like Dr. Henry’s is incorrect: “It has become very evident over the past year that children play a massive role in [the spread of] infection. I mean, there’s been a lot of misinformation and disinformation around this and minimization of the role of children in infection. We’ve heard that children are less susceptible to infection, or they’re less likely to transmit, or even they are not an important part of community transmission. This is absolutely not true!” (Gurdasani, 2021)
Anyone hoping that Dr. Henry would use a more cautious approach towards schools reopening in September 2021 was disappointed. At the beginning of the 2021/22 school year she announced that notifications about school exposures would be discontinued. Allegedly, “the majority of people felt that the school-based letters were more anxiety-provoking than helpful” (Henry, 2021d). Dr. Henry promised that schools would be informed about every single Covid-19 case. But in reality, parents now have to rely on social media posts to find out whether there has been an exposure at their kids’ school. Kathy Marliss, who started the [Facebook-page] B.C. COVID School Tracker said, “Not having that information actually creates a lot of distrust and anxiety in the system” (Marliss, 2021).
At the time of writing, there have been numerous reports of children who were diagnosed with or exposed to Covid-19 since the new school year started and on September 22, 2021 parents of students at an elementary school in Chilliwack, B.C. were informed that because of a “spike in Covid-19 cases,” the school will suspend in person instruction until at least October 4, 2021. And while currently case numbers are declining in most age groups, they are growing rapidly in the under 10 age group (see figure 1) and a direct comparison between case counts in September 2020 and 2021 shows a dramatic increase in school age children for 2021 (see figure 2). Yet public health officials informed family doctors and other health-care providers that contact tracing has been scaled back and that they may not recommend child vaccinations against COVID-19. In spite of high daily case counts, public health officials recently asserted that “we’re in a transition phase where our perception of our risk of COVID is likely causing as much disruption to society as COVID itself” (Gustafson, 2021).
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that Public Health officials have been misinforming the public even about the number of patients who are in hospital and ICUs due to Covid-19. Apparently, patients in ICUs are removed from the tally when they’re no longer infectious with the virus, even though they may spend months in hospital struggling to survive their infection. When questioned about the practice, Dr. Bonnie Henry replied with her by now trademark paternalism: “What we present in our data is the epidemiologic numbers, and that’s the way we’ve done it from the very beginning. It helps us understand severity of illness, that’s the important thing from an epidemiologic perspective” (Henry, 2021f). No one denies that the data Henry presents are important for epidemiologists. But as a public health official it is her job to inform the public about all aspects of the pandemic. She hasn’t done that for a long time.
In recent days it has become painfully obvious that Dr. Henry is willing to justify her own actions at any cost. When she was criticized for not implementing mandatory vaccinations for university students, she said in a press conference on September 20, 2021 that her concern was that a vaccine mandate for the classroom might discriminate against some students who come from backgrounds or family situations where there is wariness about vaccines. “If a First Nation student who came from a community where there is a lot of anxiety about the vaccine could not go to university [because of a vaccine mandate] that would be a tragedy” (Henry, 2021g).
If Dr. Henry was worried that some Indigenous students would be missing out on education opportunities, she could have consulted with universities about possible accommodation (like online learning) for unvaccinated students. Instead, she decided that the risk of contracting and/or transmitting Covid-19 for those students, their families, and their communities was nothing anyone needed to be concerned about.
Yet, only 2 days later, she lashed out against the people we should not discriminate against and blamed the low vaccination rate in some northeastern B.C. communities on a deliberate campaign of misinformation against the vaccines. “There are some communities where there is a real resistance and fear about immunization…There are also some communities where some leaders, whether it’s faith leaders or community leaders, are actively against vaccination” (Henry, 2021h).
Dr. Bonnie Henry’s departure from established scientific practice and her lack of transparency and accountability are not merely tolerated by the B.C. government but openly defended. “Premier John Horgan insisted … [that] the government’s only intention in withholding information about school outbreaks was to “reduce anxiety for parents and families.” Critics point out that “the systematic withholding of information may serve a political purpose of making B.C.’s record look better than it is. [And that] it risks undermining the government’s credibility … on critical public health messaging like the safety of vaccines and the need for everyone to get vaccinated” (Palmer, 2021).
The forgoing has shown the dangers of the “follow orders now, ask questions later” approach advocated by Dr. Dea. Especially in the case of B.C., this approach led to an uncritical acceptance of public health orders that have not only disrupted the economy and curtailed personal freedom but also endangered the health and lives of the most vulnerable. We have experienced for over 20 months that Public Health officials are neither omniscient nor always willing to share with the public what they know. For that reason alone, it is essential that their recommendations (be it mandatory vaccinations in universities or ‘return to normal’ in public schools) are critically evaluated and rejected where appropriate. And what better place to acquire the skills needed for such critical analysis than in universities that uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry.
Figure 1: Covid-19 case trends by age group in British Columbia
Figure 2: Comparison seven day average of COVID-19 cases in British Columbians under 20 years of age in 2020 and 2021. (Source: Griffith, 2021b)
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