Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday March 31, 2021
We need a blueprint for the next pandemic
It’s a damning indictment. On Thursday, Canada’s auditor general released a report that finds Canada’s public health and border control authorities did a poor job at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Systems didn’t work as planned. Updates and monitoring were not carried out in spite of ample warnings being given, particularly to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). There were recommended changes that were ignored, literally for decades. The country’s vaunted pandemic early-warning system didn’t work properly. There were shortcomings in how the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and PHAC responded, so border restrictions were not applied consistently, which hindered attempts to stop the virus from spreading.
Auditor general Karen Hogan pulled no punches as she assessed weaknesses in the government’s early responses to COVID in the first six months of the pandemic.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Canada’s federal public health bureaucracy was slow and inept to begin with, and didn’t find its feet until the pandemic was already well underway. To be fair, that was the case in many other countries around the world. Almost without exception, the ones that were better prepared fared better in terms.
Does the fact that Canada was in good company make a difference? Arguably, yes. Scientists have been warning the world about the next pandemic since the last pandemic. And collectively, the world paid lip service to the warnings, for the most part.
For those who like to see heads roll and blame assigned, who should we be pointing at? Presumably, public health and border service leadership at the time. The buck always stops at the government, so the Trudeau Liberals get some of the blame, too.
There is an election coming soon, and those who want to send a message can vote for a different party if that helps. But keep in mind that the most likely alternative, the Conservatives, were in power for much of the time the warnings were being sounded, and they did little or nothing, like the Liberal government before them.
The auditor general’s mission is not a witch hunt. Her criticism and observation are of critical importance, not so we can assign blame, but so we can make sure we do this a lot better the next time a pandemic comes knocking, as we know it will.
And there is another aspect of accountability and blame to consider. Governments don’t tend to do things in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Had there been tremendous pushback when the Mulroney government privatized Canada’s largest domestic vaccine manufacturing lab, or when cuts to research and development by the Harper government led to other pharmaceutical companies packing up and moving to friendlier climates, those things would not have happened. Those things were not big priorities to the average Canadian at the time, otherwise they would not have happened.
Now, with hindsight, we know how much better off Canada would have been had those things not happened. And now, if we want different outcomes, we can demand different things. We must have a domestic vaccine industry. We must have unfettered access to all sorts of PPE. We must have proactive policy and bureaucratic measures in place so all the things that went wrong this time don’t go wrong the next time.
It will not be cheap or easy. It will not work with a small government that wants the market to drive everything. Preparing for future pandemics demands government, industry and business buy-in and collaboration. We can have that if we want it, or we can take our chances. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)