If you were observing from afar – and knew nothing of the case counts, the millions of deaths, or the horrifying and ongoing human toll of acute and long COVID alike – it would be easy to see our pandemic years as a scientific success story. Half a decade ago, we would have begged for a world where politicians often referenced scientific modeling in their press conferences, or where there was a proliferation of new and growing scientific advisory bodies. We would have jumped for joy to see so many different communities calling on leaders to “follow the science” or trusting in scientific institutions.
But, as the pandemic wears into its third year, continuing its relentless death toll and endless deluge of Long COVID, one wonders why so much science didn’t lead to dramatically different outcomes. Fatigue has underpinned a social closure to the pandemic – not a closure based in evidence or viral extermination – but the one that is laid bare in abandoned masks on the sidewalk; in attendees returning to 2019 norms of showing up to gatherings knowing full well that they’re sick; in a burnt-out acceptance that “there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well get on with life.”
To be clear, there is a great deal to be praised about the way we responded to this crisis. Efforts to accelerate vaccine production evoked the moonshot scientific quests of generations gone by, uniting society in a hopefulness that vials would triumph over virus. Closer to home, Canadian institutions made some incredibly commendable moves to centre scientific advice in the multilateral response. The tri-councils, for example, anticipated and funded essential scientific research before many were even thinking of COVID-19, allowing Canadian researchers to hit the ground running on essential fact-finding missions before their international counterparts. This foresight was critical and offers a model to be reflected upon – and perhaps, in ways, emulated – in future crises.
Likewise, we did witness a rallying around the importance of evidence-informed decision-making. From the tireless work of evidence synthesizers at the Public Health Agency of Canada, to ad hoc panels convened by Dr. Mona Nemer’s Chief Scientist Office, new pathways opened for the rapid use of evidence to support real-time decision-making. There are lessons to be learned from these efforts – in their successes and failures alike – and we owe a great deal of gratitude to the tireless work of the public servants that enabled this incredibly valuable work.
At the same time, the disconnect between an abundance of science and much more tragic outcomes than we’d like should grant pause, reflection, and some deep soul searching as we continue to shape what the Canadian science policy ecosystem looks like going forward.
One such example is the relentless individualization of the crisis and our evidence-informed responses to it. In many disciplines, our modes of thinking emphasize the individual: testing a vaccine in a subject, understanding the psychology of an individual’s masking decisions, or identifying sociodemographic predictors of adverse disease outcomes. This was replicated in our understanding of the problem and the typical solutions we discussed being bogged down in encouraging individual responsibility and action. Even notable exceptions – such as encouraging masking for mutual protection, rather than selfish gain alone – ultimately still pushed individual-centric actions vulnerable to burnout, fatigue, and eventual rifts.
By contrast, we continue to see massive lost opportunities and a lack of courage around much more powerful collective solutions. Reforms to building codes that force public spaces to adopt hospital level (or better) air purification could create spaces where it was actually safe to unmask. These guidelines could be increased over time, helping to shield Canadians from not just COVID, but other emerging and long-standing pathogens as well. At the risk of being blunt, cholera wasn’t solved by suggesting individuals boil their water if concerned with the risk; it was solved through systemic reforms to make clean water accessible and available to all.
We must also grapple with the possibility that an absolutist demand for science to guide decision-making led to its deployment in terribly post-hoc, self-justifying ways. Throughout the crisis, politicians learned to leverage the rhetoric of models and evidence without the other half of science: the commitment to going where the data leads (rather than choosing the data that leads where you want to go), and the humility to accept that science cannot resolve differences in values (and that we must face these questions explicitly as we consider our courses of action). It’s hard to think of a single decision – good or bad – that wasn’t couched in scientific language. We live in a world with abundant evidence that can be twisted to conform to nearly any position, and need to get good at working through this muddle.
Relatedly, we also need to reconsider some of the ways that science has been remade during the pandemic. We’ve seen a dire acceleration of the pace of research, an obsession with publishing as rapidly as possible, and an increasing emphasis on maladaptive behaviours (like a rewarding of novelty or contrarian positions above others). Coupled with an increasing awareness of the toll of precarious labour on a rapidly increasing number of researchers; of the gendered, racialized, and otherwise inequitable playing field of science; and a scientific landscape increasingly consumed by private firms, rentier behaviours, and other parasitic business models, this paints a challenging picture for the future of science. As we enter a new phase of the ongoing pandemic, we need to think about the kinds of scientific arrangements that will facilitate thoughtful and careful inquiry, and that will productively resolve the tensions between the need for evidence now and the need to create dependable knowledge.
COVID offered what many dreamed of: a world where science was centre stage and often called upon. But, it also accelerated many perversions – individualism over systemic problem solving; the use of science as a sword to defend predetermined positions; and the morphing of science into the pace and impulses of a hyper-speed world – that threaten our ability to respond thoughtfully, kindly, and collectively to the great challenges that lie ahead. It’s time to take stock of the many things that worked well, and to gear up for an even more challenging struggle ahead.