A new independent review of the mismanagement of Canada’s pandemic early warning system, which was effectively shuttered by the Trudeau government in the months before COVID-19 made itself known in Wuhan, China, says all the right things.
Released Monday, the report urges Ottawa to better fund the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), and to make better use of the invaluable intelligence on disease outbreaks around the world that it gathers by scanning medical reports, media and other markers on a constant basis.
That, of course, is very good advice. It’s a given that, in the future, there will be more outbreaks in our connected world; it’s not a question of if, but when. Maintaining a well-funded early warning system, and creating a risk assessment group inside Canada’s Public Health Agency to analyze its finding and directly advise decision-makers, is a no-brainer.
But here’s the thing: Coming up with good advice on how to prepare for the next pandemic, and getting politicians to act on it, isn’t hard when a disease that has killed more than four million people worldwide, including more than 26,000 in Canada, is still spreading.
As the report itself says, “The best time to discuss pandemic preparedness is when it is most present in the minds of Canadians and of the governments who serve them.”
Okay. But what happens in five or 10 years, if there’s been no outbreak in the interim, and those same governments start to lose interest in life-saving measures that don’t make headlines but which, if successful, prevent them?
The fate of GPHIN is just one of several glaring examples of what happens when Canadian governments decide that, since a disaster hasn’t happened recently, now must be a good time to cancel the insurance policy.
Created in the early 1990s, and eventually folded into the Public Health Agency of Canada, GPHIN was a world-leading scientific body that tracked outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola, and shared its findings with the World Health Organization.
The Harper government indirectly weakened GPHIN in 2014, when it stripped PHAC of some of its independence. But the Trudeau government delivered the coup de grace in May of 2019, when it told GPHIN to stop its international monitoring and focus on domestic outbreaks.
It’s impossible to say for sure that turning off Canada’s early warning system contributed to Ottawa’s sluggish and confused response to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. It certainly didn’t help.
What may be more important, though, is how the evisceration of GPHIN fits a pattern in Canadian politics.
For instance, after the scare of the SARS epidemic in Toronto in 2003, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care prepared for a future outbreak by spending $45-million on 26,000 pallets of masks, face shields, needles, disinfectant wipes, disposable thermometers and other vital medical equipment.
But in 2017, the province’s Auditor-General found that more than 80 per cent of the supplies were no longer usable. The stuff had been left to rot, because the government never allocated money to manage and replenish the stocks.
In another example, this one from before the SARS crisis, the Ontario government in 2001 laid off a group of PhD-level scientists hired to watch for emerging diseases. “Do we want five people sitting around waiting for work to arrive?” a Health department spokesman asked at the time.
Yes. Yes we do.
This is going to be the real test of Canada’s postpandemic response: Can measures urgently agreed to while COVID-19 is still an omnipresent threat survive subsequent governments that start to chafe at the independence that GPHIN and PHAC need in order to do their jobs, or become annoyed at money being spent on what may at times look like just a bunch of scientists sitting around waiting for a crisis to arrive?
The GPHIN report is wrong: The best time to discuss pandemic preparedness is not when it is top of mind, but when it has receded to the background and there is no political gain to be had by talking about it.
That’s the critical moment. Canadians won’t automatically be at risk the next time a virus threatens to become a pandemic somewhere on the planet. The danger will come before that, when governments decide to cut back on the vital but unheralded work that could have kept them safe.
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