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Pandemic decision-making requires politics and science work 'hand in glove:' expert – CBC.ca

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When it comes to effective decision-making at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, one expert says it’s more complicated than simply following the science.

“If we look at countries around the world that have very successfully dealt with the pandemic, it was when politicians and scientific advice were working hand in glove,” said Heidi Tworek, associate professor in international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia.

“In places like Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Senegal, we didn’t see that politicians completely disappeared. They were actually really crucial in helping people to understand why they were doing what they were doing, what was the meaning of the guidelines that they were following,” she told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. 

“So I think there’s lots of ways in which politicians can be very, very fruitfully involved. But the balance there is what is crucial.”

From U.S. president-elect Joe Biden to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, many political leaders have promised to take cues from the science and medical communities to guide their people to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. But government policy and scientific evidence are not always in lockstep, and those decisions are not always easy to make.

Like any new disease, the science around COVID-19 is constantly evolving, said Tworek, and not all scientists are going to agree on the best course of action.

“And so there have to be decisions made depending on what those disagreements are,” she said.

Striking a balance

Stephen Meek, a former U.K. civil servant, said there is always an inevitable degree of tension between what doctors advise in a health crisis, and what politicians decide to do.

That’s why it’s important that politicians have access to the best evidence and advice possible, he said.

“But fundamentally, what politics is and what politicians have to do, is try to strike the right balance on the base of that evidence,” explained Meek, who is also director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement at the University of Nottingham. 

“And that may mean not doing exactly what the pure medical advice on dealing with the pandemic would say.”

He added that political leaders will more easily maintain public trust if they can clearly articulate the medical evidence that experts have provided, and the reasonings behind their policy decisions — whether it follows medical advice to the letter, or not.

Meek cited the different pandemic responses in England and Scotland as an example of this in action.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has earned public support for being forthright about how she makes political decisions on the COVID-19 health crisis, says Stephen Meek of the University of Nottingham. (Jane Barlow-Pool/Getty Images)

While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had long said he was making pandemic-related decisions based on science, he has since split from that course, which has earned him criticism.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has garnered much stronger public support, said Meek.

“[Sturgeon] has fronted up every day and talked about how she’s taking decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than as we’ve had with Boris Johnson sometimes saying, ‘I’m doing what the scientists say,’ [and] sometimes saying other stuff,” he said.

Dr. Jim Talbot agrees that maintaining public trust is key in fighting this health crisis. 

The only currency you have in public health is trust.– Dr. Jim Talbot, former chief medical officer of health

But that also means giving medical officers of health the ability to speak candidly to the public on health issues, he said.

“In Flint, Mich., where the civil authorities decided they didn’t want to warn people about the lead in the drinking water … people were very angry — rightfully so — that they could have done something to prevent the risk to their kids and to babies if they’d known,” said Talbot , a former chief medical officer for Alberta and Nunavut.

“But they weren’t informed.”

Talbot said that public trust is key for authorities to be able to make decisions and get things done.

“The only currency you have in public health is trust,” he said. “And if you squander that trust, you have nothing. It doesn’t matter your position or funding or anything else. Trust is our only currency.”


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Alex Zabjek.

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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