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A lack of transparency undermines pandemic policy

New Yorkers are Still puzzling over a new nationwide rule that bars, restaurants and gyms have to close at 10 p.m. to stop the spread of Covid. Was this based on brand new evidence that the virus mutates like a gremlin and gets worse at night? You would not know from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that it did not include any research that could justify this policy. However, the announcement claimed that New York used “more science than any state in the nation”.


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I’ve seen this over and over again since the beginning of the pandemic: a new, “science-based” Covid-19 measure is mandated, but the science to back it up is either vague or entirely absent. For example, just last week I was working on a story about the latest research on quarantine procedures. The best data up to this point suggest that an eight-day quarantine route combined with a Covid test offers the same protection as the conventional 14-day quarantine. But then I saw New York State’s new policy: some people who have traveled from outside the state are only allowed to quarantine for four days. I asked the New York Department of Health how they came to this decision, and they sent me another statement from Cuomo just saying that he “worked with global health experts.” Formal guidance from the State Department of Health also failed to provide research quotes, but found room to boast about New York’s “strict adherence to data-driven, evidence-based protocols” report.

This problem is hardly confined to one state. While reporting the same quarantine story, I turned to Alberta, Canada, which allows some travelers an even riskier 48 hour quarantine period. What was the scientific basis for this policy? I never heard anything. A lack of transparency has even been shown in the guidelines of the World Health Organization. Back in March, I sent an email to headquarters in Geneva to ask how they felt so safe at the time that the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus was not in the air. The press office answered my questions with two unhelpful scientific documents. In this case, the decision to leave out (or ignore) existing research – suggesting that other coronaviruses are likely to be spread by air – could have been a fatal mistake.

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Hiding the science behind pandemic policy makes it difficult for the public to judge what is being done. That said, there is no good way to test measures that may be poorly crafted or even dangerous. However, the risks could be even greater. When health officials come up with rule after rule without a clear, scientifically based justification, their advice appears arbitrary and capricious. This undermines public confidence and makes it difficult to implement meaningful rules – for this pandemic and future public health issues. As Zeynep Tufekci noted in March, both WHO and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched the early news about masks by recommending it only be used by health workers. If those agencies had cited the studies they used to produce these guidelines more clearly, the turnaround that followed might have been less arbitrary – and later provided less fodder for masking skeptics.

But in this pandemic there are rules everywhere without a source. There was initially no way for the general public to know that the recommendation to stay 6 feet apart was based in part on a 3 foot rule established through decades of studies of card players, and that the recommended distance had been doubled based on research into the spread of the original SARS virus through aircraft cabins. And what about the popular rule that every child should be allocated 44 square meters of space in the school? WIRED’s David Zweig attributed this to a consultant who found it in an education magazine, which in turn botched an already incorrect calculation by a non-profit educational institution. Some pandemic policies are even stranger and more mysterious. To prevent people from going out unnecessarily and spreading Covid-19 as winter approaches in the southern hemisphere, the South African government banned the sale of open-toed shoes and shorts (unless they were meant to be worn over leggings) Reasons why a trip would be immaterial to purchase such garments. In a seemingly backward movement, the city of Madrid has closed parks but is allowing some indoor restaurants to continue. Meanwhile, Canada’s chief medical officer recommended that people engaging in sexual activities wear masks.

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Public health authorities take precedence over providing scientific support to their advisors. The WHO and CDC sometimes cite research studies in their guides. The latter, for example, gives specific information about the science behind its hand-washing recommendations – including more than a dozen references to published research. The pandemic presents particular challenges in this regard, as the novel coronavirus has been re-researched at an unprecedented speed and scope. As early as spring, 4,000 new articles on this topic were published every week. and scientists are supposed to “drown” in the flood of knowledge. Much of this new research appears online now before it is reviewed by reviewers for a science journal. Some of the results have not stood the test of time, and if the evidence changes, battles will continue to rage over which studies should drive policy forward. But right now we’re not even privy to this debate.

There is a transparency crisis in our Covid guidelines that needs to be addressed. We live in a time when people are checking nutrition labels and worrying about the conditions on the farm where their meat was raised. So show us the data and research that informs the rules about the pandemic, however chaotic it may be. Let’s see how the Covid-19 sausage is made.

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