May 25, 2022

Let's learn from the pandemic to better deal with the next emergency

UCalgary researchers and national leaders dissect COVID-19 to learn what worked and what didn’t in the way science tackled the problem
Carly Weeks, Dr. David Naylor and Dr. Charu Kaushic
From left: Carly Weeks, Dr. David Naylor and Dr. Charu Kaushic will speak at COVID-19 Research Showcase: Lessons Learned and Future Directions

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crucible that tested how all of society faced the biggest public health emergency in more than a century, a turning point that proved particularly trying for scientists and public health experts.

But as Canadians start to move past the pandemic, looking back at how researchers responded to this emergency can provide an opportunity to learn from the trials and tribulations from the last two years, says Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine. Seizing this opportunity, the Institute will host a public forum on May 26 in which local and national level researchers will discuss the lessons that public health scientists and research institutions must take away from this global emergency.

As an organization, we need to have periodic candid conversations about how we are doing and to learn from our experiences,” says Stelfox.

“The pandemic is the biggest public health emergency most of us have experienced, and it will not be the last, as there are so many important challenges for us to address such as mental health, the opioid crisis, homelessness, health equity, and sustainability of our health-care systems.

“We need to review how we are having an impact, what we need to keep doing, and what we can do better.”

The forum, titled COVID-19 Research Showcase: Lessons Learned and Future Directions, will feature nationally renowned Institute researchers, as well as special guest Globe and Mail national health reporter Carly Weeks; legendary public health researcher and former president of the University of Toronto Dr. David Naylor, MD; and, Dr. Charu Kaushic, PhD, scientific director of the Institute of Infection and Immunity at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The pandemic saw O’Brien Institute members refocus their research, engage with the public, and take on roles as advisors – providing ideas and solutions – to local and provincial decision makers, and leadership positions in federal task forces or the World Health Organization, said Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, O’Brien Institute Associate Scientific Director – Population Health.

Vaccines in Alberta

Taking precautions. Above, a COVID-19 vaccination clinic held by Alberta Health Services during the pandemic.

Government of Alberta

But the fact that this work came at a cost, that it was never easy, and that the response to the pandemic at a systemic level was informed as much by misinformation and politics, as it was by science and evidence, highlights the need to learn from this chapter, she adds.

As scientists we work to generate evidence and evidence-based solutions,” says Milaney.

“So, it has been very difficult to bring forward 'good science' in the presence of so many myths and misconceptions that simply just spiralled and influenced so much of 'what we know'.”

Because science, politics, culture, and public discourse all played a part in how the world tackled COVID-19, the forum will explore the pandemic through a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary lens, to include the implications of research on practice and policy, what should researchers expect when faced with the next contagion emergency, and what does the future hold for public health research.

child at school during the pandemic

A child wears a face mask while attending school during the pandemic.

Allison Shelley for EDUImages

We have seen some incredible examples of researchers, community groups and practitioners from across disciplines coming together to try and understand both the health and social implications of COVID-19,” says Milaney, adding that the pandemic has also presented an opportunity to address systemic problems that, through the course of the pandemic, have become difficult to ignore.

I truly believe the pandemic has shone a light on inequity in ways many have not seen before and given us something to rally around,” says Milaney.

“My hope moving forward is that we continue to learn with open minds and that we have the courage to challenge inequity and to hold each accountable to positive and constructive dialogue and scholarship. The great research and partnership work we have been doing must lead to solutions. It must mean something.”

COVID-19 Research Showcase: Lessons Learned and Future Directions is a free, virtual public event, and one that is critical for the Institute, as it moves into a future where public health emergencies promise to be more common, says Stelfox.

The event will run from 8:30 a.m. to noon on May 26. Learn more and register.