It is one thing to be caught by surprise by a fast-moving virus, as most of the world was by COVID-19. It is quite another, and more serious, thing to be woefully unprepared to deal with such a crisis when it does occur.
Canada, like the United States, was taken was by surprise, although neither should have been. The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump administration received formal notification on Jan. 3 of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. Within days, warnings from U.S. spy agencies were being included in the President’s Daily Brief.
“And yet,’” the Post continued, “it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens.”
Canada was notified at about the same time through the medical intelligence unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command. MEDINT, as it is known, tracks contagions that may affect military operations. It is plugged into the Five Eyes Intelligence spy network of which Canada and the United States are members. The information began to work its way up the line. Health Minister Patty Hajdu says she was briefed in early January.
On Jan. 27, the country recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19, and the government slowly moved into gear. Preoccupied with getting Canadians home from China's Hubei province and several cruise ships, federal officials did not anticipate a serious risk to Canada. As late as March 10, a briefing note prepared for the minister said that, with only 12 cases reported in the country, the danger of the virus spreading was low.
One month later, on April 10, more than 21,000 Canadians were reported to have been infected.
While Ottawa can certainly be faulted for being slow to digest the information and to understand the enormity of the threat, when it did move it did so more quickly and with greater urgency than Washington. The infection rates in the two countries show that.
Canada, however, was as unprepared as the United States to combat the pandemic. There were shortages of everything – test kits, face masks, gloves, eye protectors, ventilators and acute-care beds.
There was no excuse for that. Officials had only to look back to the outbreak of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, centred in Toronto, that claimed 44 lives in 2003. Or to glance at the report of the SARS inquiry headed by Justice Archie Campbell.
“Our public health and emergency infrastructures were in a sorry state of decay, starved for resources by governments of all three (Ontario) political parties,” Judge Campbell wrote. “The only thing that saved us from a worse disaster was the courage and sacrifice and personal initiative of those who stepped up – the nurses, the doctors, the paramedics and all the others – sometimes at great personal risk, to get us through a crisis that never should have happened.”
Sound familiar? He could have been writing about COVID rather than SARS.
Public health is the poor partner in the Canadian health care system. Successive federal governments, Liberal and Conservative, have ignored the need for adequate funds for public health. By now, federal and provincial governments must be painfully aware of the need for national and provincial stockpiles of medical equipment and food and for an infrastructure to distribute these supplies at a moment’s notice to wherever they are required.
As Ontario Premier Doug Ford has observed, Canada must be prepared to go it alone. We cannot afford to rely on the leadership or cooperation of any other country the next time a global health menace reaches our threshold. Donald Trump has taught us that. But we don’t need him to teach us that there will surely be a next time.
We need to build or convert factories to manufacture the stockpiles of equipment. We need to fund more research and train more doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners. We need to reform the regime of nursing homes and seniors’ residences to protect the vulnerable elderly among us.
None of this will come cheap – this disaster has taught us that. It should also have taught our governors that they need in future to be much more alert to impending global health crises.