Researchers from around the globe are studying the challenges and successes of social distancing policies
Since COVID-19’s discovery in Wuhan, China in Jan. 2020, one of the greatest challenges of managing its spread has been the patchwork-policy approach around the world—from complete shutdown of borders like New Zealand’s to the initial attempt at “herd immunity” in Sweden.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, as part of a collaboration led by Elizabeth Alvarez of McMaster University, though, hope to provide clarity about what policies actually worked.
The effort, COVID-19 Policies & Epidemiology Research Project, is a comparative analysis of the challenges and successes of mitigating COVID-19, looking at the effectiveness of social distancing policies and their epidemiological outcomes from country to country.
“What will social distancing and masking do in a range of countries across the globe to stem the tide of COVID?” asks Donna Goldstein, a CU Boulder anthropology professor and one of the project’s researchers.
“What I really continued to believe in about this project and what I love about it is, it really has at its core this comparative depth that can really show you what worked and what didn’t work where and what things fell apart.”
On a Zoom call in April 2020, Alvarez, an assistant professor in the department of health and research methods, evidence and impact at McMaster University, presented the project to Goldstein and other researchers on the CONVERGE (National Science Foundation initiative housed at the CU Boulder Natural Hazards Center) collaborators Zoom call with the project’s leading question: What public physical distancing policies were implemented to combat SARS-CoV-2 and how did they influence the epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2?
From there, some of the researchers, including Goldstein, decided to get involved.
The Canadian-based project brought together researchers from around the world to explore this multi-dimensional question through a series of individual country reports. Each researcher was assigned to one or more countries to gather qualitative and quantitative data that highlighted five relevant categories that would give a partial story of how a country might respond—geographic, environmental, social, economic, demographic and health—along with the relevant COVID-19 policies, dating from when the WHO announced a Public Health Emergency to Aug. 30, 2020.
What I really continued to believe in about this project and what I love about it is, it really has at its core this comparative depth that can really show you what worked and what didn’t work where and what things fell apart."
“This project felt very important, not only for the topics we were addressing but also in how we were addressing them,” Anna Wynfield, a doctoral student in anthropology, said. “Bringing together researchers from fields including anthropology, public health, medicine, and other disciplines has allowed us to approach questions of policy guidance, implementation, and epidemiological outcomes in unique and collaborative ways.”
Goldstein has carried out long-term anthropological research in Brazil, so she conducted interviews with policymakers and public health officials there to gain a better sense of what happened in the country relative to the COVID-19 response during the timeframe. Wynfield, on the other hand, explored Ireland’s pandemic response.
“For Ireland, and in many jurisdictions around the world, having a cohesive and coordinated plan has been critical to mitigation,” Wynfield said. “Island countries like New Zealand have had certain geographic advantages in dealing with the pandemic. In Ireland, however, this was complicated by the fact that Ireland shares a border with Northern Ireland and policies differed between them.”
The researchers hope that the thorough analysis of each country’s characteristics will help answer the main research question while also looking critically at political leadership, public adherence and the overall effectiveness of COVID-19 policies.
“We really try to understand what worked and what didn’t work globally—and why—in different places,” Goldstein said. “We can now—having all this data about the difference in policies—weigh and compare the policy rollout and effectiveness across all these different domains.”
To date, there are five published case reports: Ireland, Ontario, Sri Lanka, England and Singapore. More reports will follow in the coming months, including Goldstein’s report on Brazil. Throughout each country's analysis, however, the researchers found that successful COVID-19 mitigation starts with clear, cohesive messaging, public trust in leadership and financial aid to populations experiencing income loss.
“It has been important to assess not only how decisions were made and communicated, but also how the public has adopted, or challenged, these measures,” Wynfield said. “To understand these dynamics, we looked holistically at how policy implementation has been supported in different places through economic support, trust in government, historical frameworks, health care infrastructure, centralized decision-making, and cohesive messaging.”
Which is something that Brazil did not do well, Goldstein said.
“A lot of public health people really pointed at Jair Bolsonaro, current president of Brazil just like many people here would point at Trump as being the most critical, problematic aspect, politicizing a virus and confusing the messaging on what to do in the pandemic,” Goldstein said.
While the initial data collection period has ended, the research continues as COVID-19 mutates and changes, and vaccines are distributed.
“There’s so much complexity to what happened and what’s still happening. … The project’s a huge feat, but I think the bigger takeaway is that doing these global-scale projects while keeping an eye on all the local nuances that have occurred is difficult but worthwhile,” Goldstein said, adding:
“It’s a form of scientific research as well as an art form to have all of these conversations globally and locally with a range of people simultaneously, and then to write about what we have learned and how to move forward.”