Emphasizing an ecological perspective over a behavioural perspective in early warning indicators

As the world now has had time to reflect on how governments were faster or slower on responding to the rapid rise of Covid-19, an in-depth case study in Canada shows that SARS had led to GPHIN detecting outbreak threats in the world (i.e. an ecological perspective). Unfortunately, in an era that became more focused on internal issues (i.e. a behavioural perspective), GPHIN went silent earlier in the year that it was needed to draw attention to signals coming from China.

In May, 2019, less than seven months before COVID-19 would begin wreaking havoc on the world, Canada’s pandemic alert system effectively went dark.

Amid shifting priorities inside Public Health, GPHIN’s analysts were assigned other tasks within the department, which pulled them away from their international surveillance duties.

With no pandemic scares in recent memory, the government felt GPHIN was too internationally focused, and therefore not a good use of funding. The doctors and epidemiologists were told to focus on domestic matters that were deemed a higher priority.

The analysts’ capacity to issue alerts about international health threats was halted. All such warnings now required approval from senior government officials. Soon, with no green light to sound an alarm, those alerts stopped altogether.

So, on May 24 last year, after issuing an international warning of an unexplained outbreak in Uganda that left two people dead, the system went silent.

And in the months leading up to the emergence of COVID-19, as one of the biggest pandemics in a century lurked, Canada’s early warning system was no longer watching closely.

All governments and societies have to make tough choices on their priorities. Unfortunately, the original motivation for an institution (in particular, those that contribute to science) may get lost in bureaucracy.

Source: " ‘Without early warning you can’t have early response’: How Canada’s world-class pandemic alert system failed" | Grant Robertson | July 25, 2020 | Globe & Mail at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-without-early-warning-you-cant-have-early-response-how-canadas/

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