How the COVID-Zero movement is clashing with Canadian health officials

Every day Tom Jackman’s dream in New Zealand feels more and more distant.

It’s not just that the oceanic island is as far away as possible from Jackman’s house in Nanaimo, British Columbia. It’s that the country’s ability to nearly eliminate the community spread of COVID-19 seems less likely to repeat itself in Canada than ever.

Jackman, a father and former archivist, insists it’s not because we don’t have the tools here to end community spread. Rather, leaders can and will not.

“Last fall, the world could see that in places like New Zealand and Australia and Hong Kong, Vietnam, China, they could actually hit a point, not zero, but almost zero COVID cases,” Jackman said. “From then on it became: Why aren’t we doing this? The solution is there in front of us and we are not even talking about it. “

Jackman is part of a predominantly online movement in Canada and around the world advocating for what they call COVID-Zero, the approach taken by countries from Oceana, East Asia and Atlantic Canada to block until there is community spread of COVID-19. only imported cases that can be isolated until the person is no longer infectious.

The COVID-Zero movement, by its nature, does not gather in crowds or protest in the streets. But online it is loud and growing, full of keyboard warriors and stubborn believers that those jurisdictions that have tried to live with some level of COVID-19 have been wrong. For them, any level of COVID-19 transmission in the community is too much, and they are furious with public health officials and leaders who they say are responsible for allowing COVID-19 to thrive.

In many ways, COVID-Zero has become the antithesis of the antimasker crowd that is fighting all the public health restrictions that come their way. Unlike anti-maskers, they have rigorous scientific research on their side and real-world examples showing that COVID-Zero has worked in some places.

But like the antimaskers, the COVID-Zero crowd is directing intense anger at public health officials and politicians; In their case, they say that the restrictions are not strong enough and that if they had been stronger at the beginning, we could all go back to living normally. now.

Just as those resisting COVID-19 restrictions are pressuring leaders to open up society, the COVID-Zero crowd is pressuring officials to keep responses to the pandemic urgent.

Sometimes the language of the two groups is mixed. At the same time, a BC PPC candidate promoted the #LockHerUp hashtag in reference to Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC Provincial Health Officer, the COVID-Zero warriors made a separate hashtag trend, #FireBonnie, on Twitter.

Members of the COVID-Zero crowd have different and often personal reasons why they have become deeply involved in researching and advocating for ways to eliminate the spread of COVID-19.

Jackman says his participation in the movement is “informal.” He mostly posts videos of comments made by BC health officials and criticizes them on Twitter, such as a recent clip he posted about BC’s Deputy Provincial Health Officer Dr. Réka Gustafson saying that COVID-19 is an “infection for all, but a disease”. of adults. “In publishing it, Jackman accused her of minimizing the risk posed by the virus to children.

For Jackman, focusing on these statements comes from personal experience. For one thing, he is the parent of a child too young to be vaccinated. On the other hand, in 2004, he became infected with a virus that he thought was the flu and then developed a rare complication that follows some viral infections called myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome.

“My energy levels dropped very low. I would go out for a long walk and crash completely, without energy. What’s weird is that it’s like I had COVID for a long time before COVID was great, “he said. “That’s one of the reasons why when people just look at ICU numbers and deaths, I think something is missing. The chronic disease portion of this disease will have a long tail. “

Some, like Jackman, are not experts but self-proclaimed experts on COVID-19, eager to read all they can about countries that have achieved COVID-Zero. Others are epidemiologists and physicians who provide evidence and rigor to the argument that the benefits of blocking more completely, testing more extensively, and masking more universally outweigh its disadvantages.

There are parts of the movement that are organized, like the “Zero COVID” campaign website run by University of Calgary researcher Gosia Gasperowicz, who makes Zoom calls once a week with like-minded people who want to get Investigations in front of decision makers. A consortium of experts produced a report called the Canadian Shield last winter, which showed evidence from jurisdictions like New Zealand and Atlantic Canada that tighter closures could shorten COVID-19 restriction periods and deliver better health outcomes.

All the people Star spoke to for this story at some point described being a part of this movement as “exhausting,” that they have been repeating the same message for over a year with little recognition from decision makers, let alone the action.

It’s getting even tougher as Australia and even New Zealand, the shining example of COVID-Zero, struggle to contain the delta variant. Meanwhile, public health officials in provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario continue to advocate to keep COVID-19 cases low while avoiding the adverse effects of more severe closures.

Henry has particularly insisted, for example, that children should stay in school as long as possible, even if the transmission of COVID-19 cannot be reduced to zero, because being in school is important for their learning and social development. .

Rob DuMont, another British Columbia parent and photographer in the Vancouver area who is involved with the COVID-Zero movement, said he has had trouble not communicating with public health officials, especially now that New Zealand is dealing with its own. shoots, which fractures the image. of a COVID-Zero approach at the international level. But DuMont says that it is not New Zealand’s failure to adopt a COVID-Zero strategy, it is the fault of the rest of the world for not eliminating COVID-19 and allowing variants to form.

And now he thinks that public health officials who still resist an elimination approach are “playing with fire” when they suggest that life may return to normal.

“My impression is that within public health, and this is not just a BC thing, there are some words and phrases that they seem to have discussed and that they use to ease anxiety and get people out of their homes,” DuMont said. For DuMont, that includes phrases like “flattening the curve,” “living with the virus,” and “transition to endemic.”

He regrets that some people have responded to his form of online activism by accusing him of being an “armchair epidemiologist.”

“Sometime in the spring, all of a sudden there was an attempt to rate anyone who supported the measures to rate them as a COVID-Zero fan,” he said. “The general implication is like: crazy and insane for wanting to eliminate the virus.”

Lisa Iannattone, a Montreal-based doctor and professor of dermatology, said she has also noticed that public health officials are trying, explicitly or implicitly, to squash the crowd’s message of COVID-Zero by suggesting that everyone return to a more way of life. normal.

“It’s kind of condescending to tell people not to worry about something they are justifiably concerned about,” he said. “It is true that all restrictions have their own negative effects, but the reason we have restrictions is because we have a lot of viruses.”

That’s true despite the fact that Canada has vaccinated more than 70 percent of its population, initially the threshold believed to be sufficient to prevent COVID-19 from circulating widely in the community.

There have been some health policy changes that COVID-Zero advocates see as incremental gains.

One that happened this week in British Columbia was a reversed decision by its top health official, Henry, who decided that the province should release data on COVID-19 outbreaks in schools after initially stating that they would not do so to prevent the anxiety.

“This is absolutely one example of activism and unfavorable comments on social media culminating in pressure from government and public health to change course,” said Andy Longhurst, a Simon Fraser University health care policy researcher and promoter of COVID-Zero.

“I think it shows in some way that when we are not following best practices, it is all a political battle.”

Longhurst, whose research focuses on what he calls “geographic imaginary” in health care policy, said he wants to see more imagination, not less in the fight against COVID-19. Take, for example, the Canadian provinces whose officials have said they cannot do what New Zealand achieved because they are not an island.

“We could make British Columbia an island,” if not physically, through policies and restrictions, he said. “These are pretty fundamental questions. They are matters of life and death. We are just not learning. “

Iannattone, the Montreal physician, said they are the realists, who have been proven right time and time again, as long as the COVID-19 pandemic has been prolonged rather than squashed with various measures: distancing, masks and now vaccinations.

Iannattone points to a cartoon circulating the corners of the internet where the COVID-Zero movement thrives.

In it, there is a pool divided into two parts by an underwater partition. On the one hand, about half a dozen people float with wide eyes. On the other side of the partition: sharks. A person outside the pool, with what looks like a toilet paper helicopter cap on their head, says, “When 70 percent are wearing shark-proof suits, I’ll open the whole pool.”

No one, the COVID-Zero crowd says, would want to be subjected to a shark-infested pool, even if they had this “shark-proof” suit. COVID-19, they say, is dangerous in the same way. So why would we let it go?

“I think we see the numbers happening, we really want vaccination to be the end of all – and it just isn’t, ”Iannattone said.

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