If – sorry, when – another novel coronavirus or mutated flu virus hits this country, Canadians had better hope it happens sooner rather than later. Based on recent history, our governments can only focus on preparing for a pandemic for about 10 years. Then they get bored.
The latest evidence of this is The Globe and Mail’s reporting on how the early-warning team inside the Canada Public Health Agency was effectively shuttered by the Trudeau government last year.
The Global Public Health Intelligence Network was formed in the 1990s by Canadian scientists who worried that other countries weren’t being forthcoming about local outbreaks. Using algorithms and old-fashioned detective work, the team scanned the globe, going through thousands of news and government reports, looking for signs of trouble.
After the 2003 SARS outbreak, which killed 44 people in Canada, the unit was moved into the federal Public Health Agency, which itself was created as a response to the SARS crisis. The GPHIN was given new powers, including the ability to issue alerts about potential outbreaks without having to ask non-scientist bureaucrats or politicians for approval.
The GPHIN went on to issue hundreds of alerts, and it won international praise for its work. But political interference began to creep in.
The Harper government stripped the Public Health Agency of some of its independence in 2014. And then, in May of last year, the Trudeau government told the doctors and epidemiologists on the GPHIN team to focus their energies on domestic public health issues, and stop doing their international work. As well, any alerts would have to be approved by a civil servant before being made public.
It’s not clear whether the silencing of the GPHIN contributed to Ottawa and the provinces’ sluggish early response to COVID-19. It certainly couldn’t have helped, though it’s not like anyone was caught by surprise when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March. Canada had already had cases and outbreaks by then.
Still, the fate of the GPHIN serves as a useful reminder about the danger of losing enthusiasm for preventing pandemics if it takes too long for the next one to arrive.
The same short-sighted politics were seen in March in Ontario, when it came to light that the province had years earlier bought 26,000 pallets of masks and other personal protection equipment – which it then left to molder and decay, so that by 2020, much of it had become unusable. The stockpile had been created in the wake of the SARS crisis, but there was no budget to replenish it as the years went by.
A similar myopia was seen before the SARS crisis, when in 2001, the Ontario government laid off a group of PhD-level scientists who had been hired to watch for emerging diseases. The cutback meant the provincial laboratory did not have the capacity to handle the outbreak, according to the interim report of the 2004 SARS Commission.
What happened when COVID-19 struck Ontario this year? The province was better equipped, but its labs were at first woefully short on testing capacity, which took months to ramp up.
The SARS report of a decade and a half ago said bluntly that governments had shown a “complete lack of understanding of the importance of the work done by scientists.” It added ruefully that, when the PhD-level scientists were laid off in 2001, an Ontario Ministry of Health spokesman was quoted as saying, “Do we want five people sitting around waiting for work to arrive?”
Canadians would today answer that question with a resounding “yes!” If consecutive outbreaks have taught us anything, it is that Canada needs to spend money on an annual basis to equip scientists with everything they need to spot dangers and fight outbreaks.
We’re not talking about a lot of money. Set against the approximately $400-billion in combined federal-provincial deficits the pandemic is expected to deliver this year, the cost of being better prepared is minuscule. The annual budget of the GPHIN is just $2.8-million. Ontario’s massive PPE stockpile cost just $45-million.
Looked at that way, Canada’s political philosophy on pandemics is akin to someone removing the smoke detectors from their nine-bedroom mansion because they haven’t had a fire in a decade, and they want to save the cost of a few nine-volt batteries. Madness, in other words.
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