As Canada enters the pandemic’s third year with a slate of new restrictions, neither Ottawa nor any of the provinces are saying if they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis of previous lockdowns
Many provinces have imposed restrictions in response to surging COVID-19 cases, but none have confirmed whether they have evaluated the success of these policies based on data and evidence from previous lockdowns in Canada.
The Epoch Times asked all 13 provinces and territories as well as the federal government whether they have done any assessment of the costs and benefits of their various measures, such as closing down businesses, during the previous waves of the pandemic in order to inform current policy-making amid Omicron and future waves.
Every jurisdiction either responded with unrelated comments or didn’t respond at all.
The rationale for lockdown and restriction measures is to reduce COVID-19 case counts. However, they’ve come at steep costs for Canadians, resulting in loss of business and livelihoods, negative impacts on mental health, increase in addictions, and even a rise in excess deaths, as different studies have shown.
David Redman, a former executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told The Epoch Times he has seen no evidence that governments in Canada have performed such evaluations, despite many places across the country now entering year three of the pandemic with new restrictions.
“There has never been, by any province or territory in Canada, to the best of my knowledge, a cost-benefit analysis or an advantage-and-disadvantages versus options open study done to justify in any way the use of NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions],” said Redman, who is also a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces.
In the face of rising case counts due to Omicron, Quebec imposed a curfew, banned indoor dining in restaurants, and postponed school reopenings. Ontario also postponed school reopenings, limited indoor gatherings, and banned indoor dining in restaurants and bars. B.C. and a number of other provinces similarly imposed limits on gatherings and postponed school reopenings.
“To impose such severe restrictions on our fundamental rights and freedoms should require due diligence to show that they are both necessary and have a favourable cost-benefit ratio for all society,” Dr. Ari Joffe, a clinical professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, said in an interview.
“My review of the literature suggests to me that that has not been done, and that there were and still are far better responses available, especially focused protection.”
Douglas Allen, an economics professor at Simon Fraser University who has studied the impact of lockdowns, says governments are unlikely to commission such studies because they don’t want to be seen as having imposed wrong policies in the past.
“If I’m a politician, the last thing I want to have is reports floating around somewhere in the government saying that I’m doing the wrong thing,” Allen told The Epoch Times. “They know what the answer is, and so to do a study would only get them in trouble. They must continue with the narrative that we are in a battle for our lives and the very existence of our nation is at stake.”
Allen and Joffe have done the only two peer-reviewed studies in Canada on the cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns. Both of their studies show that evidence doesn’t support imposing lockdowns, which have been a net-negative.
Allen’s paper, published in the International Journal of the Economics of Business in September 2021, provides an analysis of different COVID-19 studies from around the world along with his own study on the issue.
The paper examines early models of the pandemic that in many cases were used as the basis of lockdowns, often predicting very dire outcomes. He dissects the assumptions made in the models and points out that many of them were wrong. What’s more, many of the studies put heavy emphasis on the benefits and very little attention on the harms of lockdowns, he says.
His paper’s assessment of the different studies from around the world is that the imposed lockdown measures haven’t effectively curbed the harms of COVID-19.
“Most of the time, they find negative effects,” Allen said.
Allen’s paper enumerates a number of losses associated with lockdowns. Among them are loss of GDP, loss of educational opportunities, increased deaths from unemployment (“Life expectancy depends on wealth levels”), overdoses and deaths of despair, increased domestic violence, and lost non-COVID-19 medical services.
His own analysis estimates that the cost-benefit ratio of lockdown policies in Canada was 141.
“It is possible that lockdown will go down as one of the greatest peacetime failures in modern history,” Allen’s paper says.
The paper by Dr. Joffe, published in Frontiers in Public Health in February 2021, says that initial modelling predictions “induced fear and crowd-effects (i.e. groupthink)” and that many assumptions were found to be too pessimistic compared to the evidence that emerged, such as the actual infection fatality rate. His cost-benefit assessment based on the emerging data was that lockdowns were 5 to 10 times more harmful than COVID-19.
“Lockdowns may prevent some COVID-19 deaths by flattening the curve of cases and preventing stress on hospitals. At the same time, lockdowns cause severe adverse effects for many millions of people, disproportionately for those already disadvantaged among us,” Joffe wrote.
“The collateral damage included severe losses to current and future well-being from unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, interrupted preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic health care, interrupted education, loneliness and deterioration of mental health, and intimate partner violence.”
Joffe says that since his paper was published, new evidence shows that lockdowns have even fewer positive effects than what he assumed in his cost-benefit analysis, especially given that Omicron is less severe compared to previous strains of the virus.
“The data that has emerged since I published that might mean that the cost-benefit analysis is even more against lockdowns than it was at that time,” he said in an interview.
A new preprint study by researchers from a number of Canadian and American universities looked at the relationship between the stringency of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as border closures, and the growth of COVID-19 case counts in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec from February 2020 to February 2021.
The paper, titled “Stringency of Containment and Closures on the Growth of SARS-CoV-2 in Canada prior to Accelerated Vaccine Roll-Out,” submitted in October 2021 and not yet peer-reviewed, concluded that the stringency of the measures didn’t result in significant reduction in case counts.
“Taken together, the results of this study did not yield significant case reductions with increasing stringency of NPIs in the first and second waves across five Canadian provinces,” the study says.
Internationally, one of the most recent studies on lockdowns based on evidence has been done by Jonas Herby, a specialist consultant with the Denmark-based Center for Political Studies.
Herby’s study features the latest literature review of available studies, including 34 empirical studies evaluating the impacts of lockdown policies and whether they had been helpful in preventing deaths from COVID-19. He has compiled his findings as well as his own study on the issue in a paper that will be published soon.
Herby says some of the studies found that lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions helped lead to fewer deaths from COVID-19 while other studies found that such policies resulted in more deaths.
“Overall, the effect on deaths is close-to-zero,” he said in an email.
The conclusion from his own soon-to-be-published study is that shelter-in-place orders are not good policies.
“We did not have shelter-in-place orders in Denmark, but it must have been terrible [in places they were imposed] and apparently to no use,” he said.
David Leis, a vice president with the Winnipeg-based think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says it’s “appalling” that the provincial and federal governments aren’t providing an evidence-based analysis of lockdowns in their jurisdictions, or haven’t even performed such analysis.
“It’s just simply common sense in decision-making, to look at the pros and cons of different options. This is at the heart of basic option analysis when it comes to policy,” he said in an interview.
Leis says that as Canada begins its third year of the pandemic, it’s clear that the lockdowns have had massive impacts on the society, and this requires ever more transparency.
“In this kind of challenged situation, you would think that health authorities by now would realize that their perceived credibility and confidence and trust hinges more than ever on being as transparent and objective as possible, and sharing information with the larger Canadian public.”
For Redman, it’s clear that the governments in Canada didn’t follow the science.
“Science means you actually look at the evidence, develop a hypothesis, test it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else,” he says. “Well, they never did any of that.”
Redman says a fundamental problem has been that the premiers have put the departments of health, which have a very narrow focus, in charge. Instead, he says, the pandemic should be directly managed by the 13 premiers themselves through a task force.
The task force should include the provincial chief medical officer of health, but also representatives from all major sectors of the province’s economy, as well as the head of the emergency management office.
“The medical officers of health did not want the [emergency management office] involved because the aim of the medical officers of health was to protect the medical system, not the province. So they didn’t need the people whose job every day is to coordinate the protection of the whole province,” he says.
Redman says that if he were still in charge of a provincial emergency management office, he would advise the premier to focus on specific areas to effectively manage the pandemic and minimize the impact as a whole, rather than just focus on reducing case counts.
“Number one, [focus on the] protection of those most at risk. Number two, remove fear from our society. And number three, get everyone else back to their normal way of life,” he said.
“The people still in our hospitals, who are still suffering with this, are people who are over 60 with severe comorbidities. There are younger people in our hospitals, but they’re recovering and returning to their lives.”
The former emergency management executive has compiled his recommendations in a report published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, pointing out that all of the provinces and territories as well as Ottawa have ignored well-established pandemic response plans developed by their own governments, and that the mismanagement in the pandemic has had deadly results.
Redman says there are many capable specialists in the governments across Canada who can provide sound advice but they are being sidelined and having their careers threatened if they speak out. He says he is personally aware of such cases in three provinces.
He adds that many medical doctors are often afraid to speak out as well, lest they receive a warning from their regulating colleges. Pointing to the example of Ontario MPP Roman Baber who was kicked out of the governing Progressive Conservative Party for opposing Premier Doug Ford’s lockdown policies, Redman says this fear is extended to politicians, who also don’t want to risk their careers.
Joffe agrees that authorities need to implement a focused protection approach.
“That would involve protection of the most vulnerable in society to COVID, which means older people, and creating surge capacity in hospitals while not locking down the rest of the society with all the collateral harms that ensue,” he says.
Noé Chartier contributed to this report.