Being the polite people that we are, the majority of Canadians have gone along with government efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, and with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on financial support programs for individuals and businesses.
The public has accepted that these are unusual times, and that their political leaders are doing their best to tackle an unprecedented crisis. Not even the horrific death count in long-term-care homes in Ontario and Quebec generated much lasting anger.
But six months into this crisis, Canadians have every right to be frustrated by a persistent failure on the part of Ottawa and the provinces: the lack of adequate COVID-19 testing.
While the country as a whole has administered close to seven million tests since the start of the pandemic, it is still not where it needs to be in order to effectively monitor and control community transmission. This is in spite of the fact that government leaders have repeatedly vowed to increase Canada’s testing capacity over the course of the summer.
This is completely unacceptable. From the very beginning of the pandemic, it has been clear that the most valuable and cost-effective weapon in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 – and the best way to avoid a lockdown – is quick and accurate testing, and the diligent tracing of anyone who comes into contact with a person who tests positive.
But today, as the country is trying to restart the economy and get children back to school, one of the chief barriers to doing so successfully remains a lack of testing capacity – at the very moment it is needed more than ever.
In Ontario, children with symptoms of a regular cold are being sent home and can’t return until they and their parents have been tested. This, along with the recent worrisome climb in new cases, has caused a surge in demand for testing that the province has not been able to meet. People are waiting up to eight hours in line at testing centres, and many are being turned away.
And yet “testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra from Day 1 among public-health experts around the world. Outside of a total lockdown, which is damaging to the economy and requires immense personal sacrifice, mass testing and tracing are the best tools for controlling community transmission.
But here we are, six months into the pandemic, and the country is still lagging behind.
In July, the federal government announced that it would spend $4.28-billion to fund more testing in the provinces and territories, with the ultimate goal of testing 200,000 Canadians every day.
Two months later, the country is still very, very far from that goal. The total number of tests administered in Canada on Wednesday was 62,497, according to federal government figures.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford says his government will use the federal funds to “significantly expand testing capacity over the next six to eight months,” with the immediate goal of reaching 50,000 tests a day by later this fall.
But any commitment to that goal is belied by the fact that testing in Ontario barely increased this summer. According to our calculations based on provincial data, the average number of daily tests in July was 24,700. To date in September, the average is 27,500.
In Quebec, Premier François Legault said his province would use the federal funding to “gradually increase its testing capacity from 24,000 to 35,000 tests per day." On Tuesday, Quebec administered 23,752 tests. And, like other provinces, it has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand ever since schools reopened.
Over and over this year, political leaders have claimed that testing is a priority. But while the daily number of tests shot up in the spring, when governments were under pressure, it has stagnated across the country since July, and politicians have been too complacent about building more capacity.
And now their complacency has caught up with them – and with the Canadian people. Canada’s fall reopening is being compromised by a steady increase in new community transmissions coupled with a lack of testing capacity.
There is a good chance that, when history looks back on the pandemic in Canada, our political leaders' failure to put adequate testing in place will be shown to have needlessly harmed the recovery in 2020.
And that is reason to be angry right now.
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