'Stupid" is the only word for it. If the Health Canada bureaucracy thinks that sending body bags to Manitoba's native communities at the same time as hand sanitizers, gloves and masks is the way to inspire confidence in federal leadership on H1N1, it could not be more wrong. This seemed to be either someone's ghoulish sense of humour, or Ottawa fears 1918 all over again. What does it know, as one native leader asked, that it isn't telling us?
But maybe it was just stupid, and nothing more. Much more troubling is that Canada's Public Health Agency finally got around on Wednesday to releasing its priority list for vaccination against swine flu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a list on July 29. The World Health Organization came out with a list on July 13. The Canadian release was long-awaited - too long; with an epidemic perhaps just weeks away, the country's health leaders inexplicably required scads of time to cobble together the obvious.
Now Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, in deep damage-control mode, has ordered an inquiry into the shipment of body bags. But leadership demands more than a promise from the Health Minister to get to the bottom of the strangely timed shipment. It demands readiness. The minister's inquiry should ask urgently why Canada's priority list landed nearly two months after the U.S. one. Does this mean Canada's ability to roll out the vaccine will suffer from a similar time lag? Will those at the most risk be immunized in time? Will this country perpetually be playing catch-up to other developed countries?
Ms. Aglukkaq should also be asking what is the plan to actually vaccinate the millions on the priority list, and why, on her watch, Health Canada is bungling its efforts to protect aboriginal communities, who will inevitably be hit hard in a severe outbreak, because of crowded living conditions and widespread ill health.
By yesterday afternoon, Health Canada announced that the body-bag shipments were a routine preparation for the unforeseen, and had nothing to do with H1N1. At the very least, the irony is discomfiting. Officials debated for weeks about sending alcohol-based sanitizers to northern communities, during the initial outbreak of swine flu in the spring, leaving anxious communities without emergency supplies such as flu masks and respirators. Yet they move with alacrity to distribute receptacles for the dead.
Some mistakes annoy, others unnerve. These events shine a worrisome light on the government's command of an urgent public-health matter.