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Reza Fakhraei and Jonathan Whelan, right, catalogue a box of donated diapers during a donation drive for personal protective equipment and medical supplies in Ottawa on April 25, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Chris Houston has worked in Canada at Kindercare Pediatrics and overseas in healthcare logistics for various humanitarian agencies, including Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization. He is the humanitarian adviser at Conquer COVID-19. These views are his, not of any employers or former employers.

In mid-March, just as COVID-19 cases were beginning to spike in Toronto hospitals, I was tagged in a Twitter conversation by a group of concerned volunteers planning to source personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, respirators, face shields, gowns and gloves for health care workers. They were worried about friends in hospitals who didn’t have enough PPE. I was, too, but I was also certain that the government would take care of this – and that a group of amateurs would do more harm than good. I was worried that if these volunteers actually raised any funds to purchase PPE, they would push the prices up and duplicate the efforts of those who should be managing the response, the provincial governments.

I thought this because of what I’ve seen over the course of years supervising emergency health care operations for humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan and Yemen. Surely, in Canada, such aid efforts wouldn’t be necessary.

I was wrong.

In Ontario, more than 4,000 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19; nine have died because they weren’t adequately protected. More than 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care homes, where staff lacked basic safety equipment.

The World Health Organisation warned of a global health emergency in January. Why did the corporations that run long-term care homes and the governments that regulate them not take heed of this warning?

Our group of volunteers started in March what the provincial health authorities should have started in January. We began holding PPE-collection drives at which people and companies dropped off surplus PPE and hand sanitizer; local alcohol companies, which had pivoted to sanitizer production, donated it by the crate. We registered as a non-profit organization called Conquer COVID-19 so we could process donations. Support from hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser and actor Ryan Reynolds sparked national attention. We sold T-shirts to raise funds for more supplies.

Volvo Cars Canada offered us a fleet of vehicles for transporting PPE donations to health care facilities, and both XYZ Storage in Toronto and St. John Ambulance in Ottawa provided warehousing. We raised more than $2.3-million in donations, including $1-million from the Thistledown Foundation, which we used to purchase additional PPE supplies.

Week after week, our team made tough decisions about where to send our finite resources. We were able to respond urgently to requests from many locations, including overwhelmed front-line workers at Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., and from former federal health minister Jane Philpott at Participation House in Markham.

But we were unable to fulfill every need. Requests for PPE far outstripped our capacity in some regions, including the Greater Toronto Area. In the end, we delivered more than a million items to 94 cities in six provinces – and yet it still wasn’t enough.

This is not a feel-good story. The responsibility to provide PPE to health care facilities should not rest with volunteers. In light of the WHO’s warning in January, failing to source and distribute the equipment needed to protect front-line workers and patients was – and remains – a serious failure. It’s unacceptable that it fell to private citizens to fill these gaps in a country such as Canada.

It’s only a matter of time before we end up in the midst of another public-health crisis. I hope that governments will prioritize public health and make the necessary investments to ensure that our front-line workers will be better prepared the next time around.

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