The federal government delivered some good news on Tuesday, when Prime Minster Justin Trudeau announced that companies across the country have been enlisted to produce desperately needed hospital gowns and ventilators.
The day before, Ottawa said 3M would restart shipments of N95 masks to Canada, after the Trump administration originally ordered the U.S. company to stop exporting them.
And in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said a local company is now producing a made-in-province supply of masks, and could eventually be churning out a million per week.
There remain concerns about Canadian hospitals running out of protective equipment for health-care workers, and ventilators for the sickest patients, in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases. It appears, however, that progress is at least being made in the race to get the needed gear.
That is thanks to the convening and spending power of Canadian governments. But as much as this moment is a reminder of their necessity in a crisis, it is also an example of what happens when they fail to prepare for a foreseeable catastrophe.
Ottawa and the provinces should have been far readier. Canada was one of the countries hardest hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003, and suffered because it wasn’t prepared.
That led to an inquiry into what happened, and how this country could do better. Some of the recommendations were put into effect in Ontario, and have been helpful in the response to COVID-19. And Ottawa created the Public Health Agency of Canada, a key player in the current battle, in 2004.
But planning for a future pandemic was far from adequate. Nothing is more emblematic of that than Ontario’s comedy of errors surrounding the purchase and warehousing of emergency medical supplies.
In 2017, the Ontario Auditor-General reported that, in the wake of SARS, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care spent $45-million on 26,000 pallets of masks, face shields, needles, disinfectant wipes, disposable thermometers and other items needed in an outbreak. The stockpile even included 55-million N95 respirator masks.
However, the auditor-general found that more than 80 per cent of the supplies had passed their expiry date and were no longer usable.
The government’s explanation? It had given itself no budget to manage and replenish the stockpile.
That’s outrageous. But it’s also politics. As the public’s memory of SARS faded, the pressure on governments to spend money on preparations for the next outbreak faded with it. The Auditor-General’s comment on the province’s rotting stockpile went largely unnoticed until Reuters reported on it nearly three years later, as the current coronavirus crisis was ramping up.
If you asked Canadians right now if they wished that governments had spent a lot more money on pandemic preparedness, they’d say yes. And when the inevitable inquiries look back at what went right and what went wrong in 2020, there will no doubt be recommendations about keeping properly managed, up-to-date stockpiles of masks, ventilators and testing equipment, along with better training and planning.
But what happens five years after that, or 10, if there hasn’t been another pandemic and the politicians who vowed not to spare a penny when it comes to preparedness are hearing that familiar refrain from voters about cutting spending and lowering taxes?
What happens if, a decade after the last person dies in this outbreak, there are gross oversights that are only reported on in a single paragraph of a 1,121-page auditor general’s report, as was the case for Ontario’s doomed medical stockpile?
Pandemics are unlike any other emergency. Their rarity is only matched by their potential to kill, to hospitalize, and to do massive harm to the economy if the proper preparations aren’t in place.
How can the public maintain pressure on governments to stay on high alert for an event that hopefully won’t occur? And how can politicians convince voters, many of whom unfairly believe that government spending is always a form a waste, to allow them to continue to spend generously on pandemic preparation?
In a country that somehow manages to be surprised by flooding emergencies every spring, these are good questions. We’ll offer solutions, later this week.