At this point, the last thing that Canadians want to think about is the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s enough other big stuff to worry about – the high cost of living, the threat of a recession, floods and wildfires – without having to dwell on yesterday’s nightmare.
The problem is that our politicians are of the same mind. There is little urgency at any level of government for a formal public review of what went right and what went wrong from the moment a novel coronavirus was first identified as a threat in China in early 2020.
And that’s bad. It is incomprehensible that, having lived through a real-world experience that killed almost 53,000 people here (and almost seven million worldwide), there is no credible evidence that someone somewhere in government is working on a helpful handbook on how to respond to a deadly pandemic in Canada in a smart way.
The best way that can be done is for politicians, health officials and civil servants to re-examine their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from start to finish, learn what they can from their mistakes and successes, and agree on protocols that would prevent them from having to ad-lib their way through a second pandemic.
And how to do that? The question resurfaced last month when a leading British medical journal, the BMJ, published a series of analyses and opinion pieces urging an “independent national inquiry” on what it saw as the chief failings of Canada’s response.
Those failings were: the inconsistent responses across the provinces and territories caused by decentralized decision-making; the predictable slaughter of vulnerable long-term care residents; the fact that poorer communities saw higher levels of infection than better-off ones; and the allegation that Ottawa was a “hoarder” of vaccines and didn’t live up to commitments to share with developing countries.
We can add other issues that could benefit from hindsight, among them: the inconsistent messaging about masking at the start of the pandemic; the dithering over whether to close borders, before finally doing it for non-essential travel; the hard-to-understand decision to continue to impose domestic air and rail travel bans on unvaccinated Canadians after provincial mask and vaccine mandates were lifted; whether the benefits of school closures outweighed the harms.
There are also reasonable questions about Ottawa’s multibillion-dollar economic response: whether it was too much, whether there were enough safeguards to prevent fraud, whether it could have been more targeted, and so on.
The point is not that Canadian governments did a terrible job in the pandemic. By some critical measures, they did very well. Canada had one of the lowest death rates and highest vaccination rates among advanced countries; the programs to support laid-off workers and shuttered businesses were essential measures that Ottawa put in place with admirable speed; the Prime Minister did not repeatedly hold large drunken parties in his residence while regular Canadians were under lockdown.
The point is that Canada could have done better. It’s a certainty, for instance, that had the provinces listened to repeated warnings that long-term care homes were vulnerable, there could have been thousands fewer deaths in this country.
An independent public inquiry with a mandate to provide governments with a toolkit for managing another pandemic would be invaluable. As importantly, it would demonstrate to Canadians that the experience of the pandemic was being used to reduce the impact of a future one.
Of course, any inquiry would have to look at the most difficult issue of all – how to keep governments that exist in four-year cycles from losing interest in pandemic management over the long term.
The BMJ pointed out, as have many others, that two inquiries into the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003 produced some positive outcomes (the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada was one of them), but most of their recommendations were ignored or had been forgotten by the time the first person mysteriously fell ill in Wuhan, China, in 2019.
That’s the real fight. Canada and other countries can learn vital lessons from the COVID-19 epidemic – getting them to do it in a sustainable way that survives partisan politics, budget cuts and shifting priorities won’t be easy.
If a public inquiry here can figure out ways to fix that, Canada will have down the whole world a favour.