Opinion: Time for Quebec public health officials to tell government, 'that's enough!' when it comes to COVID-19 and schools
Published Thursday, January 21, 2021 1:51PM EST
Personal protection equipment is seen on the teacher's desk in classroom in preparation for the new school year at the Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal, on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL -- Schools have re-opened with few changes in preventive measures, ignoring warnings of scientists, doctors and infectious disease specialists.
During the past few months, we have witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of government press conferences, the uneasiness, the painfully halting, vacillating talk, the meaningless, empty gesticulations.
We have seen public health official distorting and ignoring the science, and at times creating their own scientific facts such as, 'air purifiers are not recommended in schools', 'children get infected at home not at school', 'children don't need masks',' school outbreaks are easily controlled', 'Quebec does not need rapid testing'(that's a good one!), and the list goes on and on.
Time and again their declarations have been contradicted by reputable doctors and scientists. None of this was true, of course.
Despite reassurances that schools were not spreaders of the virus, we now know what many scientists have been warning all along, that schools have played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis. This pandemic is far from over; children will get infected at school and spread it to their teachers, their families and grandparents, and to the community.
Enough with the fake science, the gaslighting, the smoke and mirrors. We need truth, transparency and a coherent disaster management plan based on measures that have been proven effective in other provinces and other countries.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the piecemeal Quebec school measures are clearly inadequate to prevent transmission. They fail to meet national and international guidelines to keep schools open during the pandemic. Keeping schools open under these conditions is simply unsafe. Waiting for the next body count to add more band-aid solutions is morally reprehensible and a major breach of public health ethics.
The argument of children's mental health has been repeated like a mantra to justify keeping schools open. Although no one can deny that school closures can cause enormous economic and emotional hardships on families and that some children will be particularly affected, some experts are questioning the science behind overreaching claims of mental illness in children resulting from temporary school closures.
Dr. Kim Lavoie, a clinical psychologist and Canada Research Chair in behavioural medicine at UQAM said in a recent interview that claims from public officials about the impact of school closings on the mental health of children are not as well-grounded in evidence as is sometimes implied as other factors may be at play.
One study from the U.K. found that school closures may have a protective effect as students had overall reductions in anxiety and rises in wellbeing. This may be due to the removal of academic and social stressors within the school environment. This sentiment is echoed by many parents.
Well-intentioned people who are clamouring over the mental health of children should not turn a blind eye to the mental impact on teachers, the mass trauma on ICU nurses and doctors, the grief of families who have lost a loved one, the anguish of the seriously ill who cannot be visited by their families, etc. They should also not downplay the emotional burden on children who are forced to attend in-person school knowing they are putting their parents or grandparents in danger, or worse.
There is so much more to an education than the sacrosanct "curriculum". It is time to stop obsessing over it and for parents and educators to think outside the box and do their best to keep children happy and socially connected during school closures with creative activities.
Mental health issues can be prevented and treated, but no one can bring someone back from the dead.
What was a short time ago unthinkable has now become a nightmarish reality straight out of the Twilight Zone. Paradoxically, while the government back-to-school plan continues to flout universal precautions, having turned schools into major sources of transmission, it is now ready to pull the trigger on an advanced triage protocol that will make the weakest members of our society disposable, excluding them from receiving lifesaving treatments when hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID cases. There is no logic and proportion in all of this.
What moral or legal grounds justifies denying our weakest their most fundamental right, the right to life, offering them in a sacrificial rite to keep our schools open or because they are perceived as a nuisance to our economy? To quote Mahatma Gandhi, ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. With more than 9,200 dead so far from COVID-19, mostly among our most vulnerable, do we want it darker?
The climate of trust toward the Quebec government has dropped when it comes to the handling of the pandemic. Let's be clear, both regional (CIUSSS) and provincial public health officials have acted like court jesters singing for the king and queen, walking in lockstep with the government. It is time for public health doctors involved with COVID-19 to break rank, speak truth to power and distance themselves openly from dangerously flawed school government policies.
They should do well to remember their Hippocratic Oath whose principles are held sacred by doctors to this day, 'Above all do no harm'. The people deserve better public health leadership, acting only in the population's best interest, not in the interest of personal ambition, careerism and political favour. Public health servants should reflect carefully on how they want to be remembered when this unprecedented calamity is over.
- Michael Levy, MPH is an environmental health specialist and epidemiologist