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opinion

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam arrives for a daily briefing on May 1, 2020 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In the spring of 1940, Great Britain and the Allies suffered an unprecedented defeat at Dunkirk. Yet the scale of that defeat was so much less than feared that the mood of the British public momentarily verged on euphoria.

In late May, the British army in Europe was surrounded. The worst-case scenario was that every man would be lost. The best-case scenario was that a small number might escape. Thanks to desperate measures, 300,000 soldiers – nearly the entire army, minus their weapons – were rescued by June 4.

It prompted the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to pen what would become his most famous speech. It closed with a defiant promise to fight in the fields and in the streets, and to “never surrender.” His words offered hope that, in the end, the good cause would win out.

But before lifting people up, he needed to bring them down to earth. People were feeling a sense of triumph, which was severely premature. Much of the speech is a real downer, and was meant to be.

“Our thankfulness,” he said, “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened … is a colossal military disaster.”

“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.”

Those words speak to the situation Canada is in today.

In response to a pandemic, the country has been subjected to a month and a half of desperate measures. The results are, for the most part, far better than initially hoped for.

More than 3,200 Canadians have died, a terrible toll. But the expectation of illness on a scale far beyond the capacity of hospitals has not come to pass. For example, Ontario’s top public-health officials in early April laid out their best-case and worst-case scenarios for the course of the virus, but by late April, the province, despite having Canada’s second-worst outbreak, was still outperforming the best-case scenario.

Desperate measures saved lives. But let us not delude ourselves: These steps were taken because we were not better prepared to do otherwise, and they have been shockingly costly. The federal government is poised to run a deficit of more than $250-billion, and millions are without work because of the need to fight the virus by imposing an economic lockdown.

All of this was necessary, under the circumstances. But we have the power to change those circumstances. The revival of the economy from its medically induced coma begins this month, and steps must be taken to ensure that we never need to put the economy back into the deep freeze. The country has to give itself the tools to fight in more surgical ways.

When it came to bailing out Canadians, Ottawa thought big and moved fast. Aid programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars have been rolled out in a matter of weeks.

Ottawa and the provinces now need to think ambitiously, and act quickly, to properly arm our health care system and our public-health agencies. Give them all they need to fight the next round of the virus, without having to resort to carpet-bombing the economy.

Our public-health officials need the ability to test massively, and quickly. They need big teams of tracers, and new technologies, to quickly track down everyone who has come into contact with an infected person, and to test them, too. They need to be able to quickly test border crossers, from truckers to the foreign travellers who will one day be allowed to return.

And they need data – up-to-the-minute, detailed and open – to pinpoint where the virus is.

Does Canada have that today? No. The system has holes, and data gaps reveal them. When outbreaks began in Ontario’s nursing homes, journalists had more accurate numbers than provincial officials.

And even today, a look at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s daily epidemiological summary shows missing answers to this basic question: How did people contract the virus? PHAC has information on only half of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, and most of them are listed as “case has no known exposure” – meaning no information on how, where or from whom a person became infected.

That’s not good enough.

Canada has been delivered from Dunkirk. The loss of life, though large, has so far been less than feared. But the enemy is still out there. The war is far from over. Until a vaccine is discovered, we are still very much in the thick of it.