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People wear face masks as they line up for a COVID-19 vaccine shot at an outdoor clinic in Montreal, July 10 2021.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

If Canada’s pandemic warning system had functioned the way it was designed and intended, would the country have fared materially better in weathering the onslaught of COVID-19? Or would we have nevertheless slumbered along as COVID-19 and its subsequent variants infected the country, reacting only to threats once they became clear and present dangers?

A report by Auditor-General Karen Hogan released in March and another by an independent review panel released this past week were unequivocal: The system wasn’t working. The reports described how the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) was underfunded, technologically static, how it had perilously been refocused away from international surveillance, and how analysts had become stifled by the oppressive presence of a burgeoning bureaucracy.

The review panel made a point of noting that the GPHIN distributed information about a pneumonia-like illness out of China as early as Dec. 31, 2019. But for months, the Public Health Agency of Canada assessed the situation as one of “low” risk to Canada – even as COVID-19 spread across the world and landed in Canada, after China ordered an unprecedented lockdown of the entire city of Wuhan and built an emergency hospital in just 10 days. GPHIN was supposed to raise alarm bells early – to filter and critically assess information from international sources to “prevent and mitigate threats to human health.” That didn’t happen.

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But what the Auditor-General and independent review panel did not – and indeed could not – answer is whether early and persistent alarms from GPHIN would have changed the trajectory of Canada’s COVID-19 response. It’s a counterfactual question, to be sure, but not one entirely devoid of evidence from which one may draw a conclusion.

An alert from GPHIN is supposed to function as a pre-emptive warning – like a smoke detector operating throughout the pandemic, to use the analogy offered by Ms. Hogan – to tell the Public Health Agency of Canada to look into a potential health danger brewing abroad. Had alarms gone off early, and had Canada’s government been determined to get ahead of the crisis, it would have needed to impose strict measures such as border controls and travel bans long before the average citizen would’ve actually seen any flames – which would have been an enormously tough sell politically.

It’s not terribly likely that this government would have had the impetus and co-ordination to do so, considering that even after fires started popping up in Canada, it still dragged its feet. Border controls remained so lax after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and after Canada finally raised its risk assessment to “high,” that some provinces began sending their own officials to airports to screen incoming travellers. At no point during this entire pandemic has non-essential travel been fully prohibited for Canadian citizens, despite a false claim promulgated on Twitter by Public Safety Minister Bill Blair that the government banned discretionary travel for over a year. The government also never got around to fixing the loophole that allowed incoming travellers to bypass its hotel quarantine efforts by arriving by land or private jet instead of by an airline.

When reports started flowing in earlier this year about planes with passengers infected with COVID-19 arriving daily from India – where a worryingly transmissible new variant was first identified – Canada maintained course for weeks. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responded to questions about banning incoming flights by noting that the variant was still technically designated one of “interest,” rather than “concern” (despite reports from India of young people dying from the virus and hospitals running out of oxygen) and that Canada was actively “monitoring” the situation. That monitoring continued as clusters of what would later be named the Delta variant were detected in B.C., and Quebec. And only then, with the Delta fire visible and actively spreading – and perhaps more importantly, with political pressure intensifying – did the federal government decide to ban direct flights from India.

All of which raises the question: If the federal government was slow to act on ongoing, immediate, clearly evident sources of danger – weak border controls, quarantine loopholes, travellers with COVID-19 arriving daily – at times when anyone in Canada could patently see the risks, what is the likelihood it would’ve acted swiftly and decisively early when most people were not even aware of the danger? Indeed, what good is a smoke detector when the country wastes time looking for its favourite sneakers and checking its hair while a fire is choking the room?

It is certain that the federal government will reform GPHIN when the pandemic is over, thanks to the public spanking it has received from the independent panel, the Auditor-General and the media. But refocusing its mandate and ridding the organization of obstructionist bureaucracy is only part of the challenge. Canada can have the best public-health warning system in the world, but it won’t matter if it can’t also find a way to get the decision-makers in government to listen.

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