During the Covid-19 global pandemic we’ve had many sobering reminders about the importance of correct and reliable information. There has been so much garbage floating around, with others trying to use this moment to boost their views and beliefs, it’s created a lot of confusion and danger for many folks out there. That surely isn’t helped when you have the President of the United States being a major distributor of misinformation and such on everything from the dangers of the disease itself, dangerous guidance around unproven medications and trying to impugn the reputations of medical professionals.
It’s been a hard time for sure, trying to sort through it all, but thankfully there have been outlet’s that have been mostly good sources of information. One of those places has been found in various committee hearings in our House of Commons. During the weekdays we’ve been seeing daily virtual committee meetings, with lots of people stepping forward to testify, bringing vital important information. And unlike in normal times, the witnesses brought forward have been very constructive, focused on the situation and denouncing some of the crap that’s floating around out there. But that might be about to change, as the meeting notice for today’s House of Commons Health Committee will hear from someone today that’s leaving more than a few people shaking their heads:
A tip of the hat goes to Brian Platt of Postmedia for catching this troubling detail. Scheduled to testify today is none other than Dr. Richard Schabas, Former Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario. As Platt pointed out, he seems like an odd choice to testify in this serious moment. Why you might ask? Well this opinion piece he published in The Globe and Mail might give you a clue:
Yes folks, in the early days of Covid-19 he penned a piece in which he suggested that, strictly by the numbers, “the coronavirus does not register as a dire global crisis.” You could say hindsight is 20-20 and say who could have known, but even at that point it was clear that Covid-19 was a global crisis. It hadn’t been declared a pandemic yet, but it was clearly a crisis of a global scale. But look, everyone slips up right? Maybe this was a one-off mistake on this part? Well, a quick Google search puts that to the test:
Well folks, if I didn’t know any better, I would say that we have a pattern here of downplaying serious medical issues. He has a long-published history of telling folks lots of things that they shouldn’t be doing or worrying about, a publish history that goes well over a decade. In one post posted above, he is quoted saying that the threat of pandemic posed by the Avian flu was “a fraud”, saying that he was “more frightened by the traffic I had to fight to get here than I am by the threat of bird flu.” He also went onto say that the lesson that we should have taken from SARS was that “it disappeared like the morning dew, not because of draconian measures like quarantine.” Disappear huh? Sounds a lot like a certain American President, doesn’t it?
But oh folks that’s not all. Schabas has been a constant critic of Canadian vaccination policies around the flu. To be clear, he’s not said they aren’t safe or anything you’d usually see from the anti-vaxxer crowd, but what he has said has still given that community some comfort. In 2015, along with Neil Rau (someone who he has written many pieces with), he co-authored another Globe and Mail piece entitled “Are we taking the flu (shot) too seriously?” You can guess what followed after that, and no, the answer wasn’t “No we’re not”. Later that same year Schabas was quoted in the Belleville Intelligencer, in his role as Medical Officer of Health for the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Board of Health, attacking Ontario’s influenza vaccination program. In that story he said generally healthy people who aren’t at serious risk of flu complications probably don’t need the vaccine. And he’s quoted saying at a meeting of that same board of health “It’s here if you want it … but I’m not actively promoting it for the general population.” Yikes!
We’re not done yet folks, sadly not even close. Back in 2018, when the globe was seeing a resurgence of measles so bad that decades of public health work was being undone, Schabas & Rau co-authored another Globe and Mail piece, this time entitled “Stop the hysteria over measles outbreaks.” Yes, it was “hysterical” to worry about measles making a comeback in Canada they told us. Of course it was only months later that what they told us not to be hysterical about arrived in Quebec. Again hindsight, what a thing, right? They also published another piece in 2016, at the height of Zika virus, telling Canadians “Why Zika shouldn’t derail the Rio Olympics”, another example of telling people not to worry. And they also wrote a piece in 2014 telling us what SARS could teach us about dealing with Ebola, with one point specifically saying, “quarantine was abandoned a century ago”. Of quarantine, they said that it “targets well people potentially incubating an infection” going into say “it’s impractical, ineffective and economically disruptive.”
And finally, this prodigious writing duo wrote a piece in 2009 that speaks very strongly to the moment we find ourselves in now. That piece was entitled “The real costs of the pandemic that wasn’t”, where they criticized the global response to H1N1. They try to paint this as the cautionary tale of responding fast, leaning hard into their “don’t worry” and basically saying that responding fast and finding out the problem isn’t as bad is worse than delaying to respond and ending up with a pandemic on your hands that’s out of control. I think that after finding that many pieces in a short Google search, we’re well beyond March’s piece being a one-off good.
Given that track record of a laissez faire, “Don’t worry, be happy” approach to public health, I’m not sure why Dr. Bobby McFerrin MD was ever invited to testify before this or any other committee in this moment. Worse yet, I’d love to know who thought inviting this person to testify was constructive, helpful or anything close to a good idea in this moment. Right now parliamentarians and Canadians need to hear from people who recognize there is a problem and have more to offer to this debate than “stop acting, you’re doing too much.”
Honestly given everything that’s he’s written on these matters, it feels like me might be better suited talking to a prime time Fox News host than to twelve Canadian MPs. I’d love to be proved to be wrong here, to think that Dr. Schabas has seen the light and will come before this committee to actually offer constructive advice to the government. But all the evidence, recent and older, points to the opposite. The last thing that Canadians need to hear right now is opining about “Why we shouldn’t take Covid-19 too seriously?”, stopping “the hysteria over coronavirus outbreaks” & “Why Covid shouldn’t derail the economy”. Given his past writings, those headlines are very plausible and given that past, there is no way that he should be given the platform & legitimacy of a House of Commons committee. The stakes are too high right now and if your message is to “stop worrying”, you’re not helping the team.