Skip to main content

Publicly, political leaders in Canada have shown a united front as they try to source the masks, gowns, gloves and face shields.LILIANA ENGELBRECHT/Reuters

The race to equip Canada’s front-line workers with vital protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic has become intensely competitive as government officials at all levels try to secure critical supplies.

“It is really a Wild West when it comes to buying medical supplies right now," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday. "This is a global pandemic and every country in the world is doing its best in a truly fierce competition to get medical equipment.”

Publicly, political leaders in Canada have shown a united front as they try to source the masks, gowns, gloves and face shields. And the federal government has assured Canadians that it will have the necessary supplies. But behind the scenes, the shipments are slow to arrive as federal and provincial governments get shortchanged on orders and deliveries are delayed or disappear.

Theresa Tam offers new advice: Wear a non-medical face mask when shopping or using public transit

Ontario says 500,000 masks destined for province to be released by U.S.

Huawei sending millions of masks to Canada as supplies grow short

Quebec and Ontario, the provinces hardest hit by COVID-19, are monitoring supply levels by the day. On Monday, Premier Doug Ford warned Ontario is facing "very low” numbers and is about one week away from running out. Premier François Legault said Quebec has extended its supply of masks to last almost two weeks but has enough gowns for only six days.

Nova Scotia and Ontario say they haven’t received complete orders of medical supplies made through the federal government. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday his province has obtained large quantities of personal protective equipment over the weekend, but only a small number of masks from Ottawa.

Documents viewed by The Globe show Ontario, which has the second highest number of confirmed cases and the highest number of hospital admissions, has received a fraction of the supplies ordered through the federal government. For example, as of Monday the province hadn’t received any of the roughly 20 million gowns ordered through Ottawa, and received just 129,000 N95 masks of the more than six million ordered in March.

On Monday, a new shipment arrived in Ottawa, including millions of surgical masks but no N95 masks. Spokesperson Katherine Cuplinskas said the federal government has fulfilled 21 orders from provinces, but she didn’t disclose the total number of orders.

Mr. Ford said Ms. Freeland is “going full steam” to source medical supplies – a job that in normal circumstances is the responsibility of the provinces. But demand for the supplies is high around the globe, forcing Ottawa to step up.

In his daily news conference Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s ability to procure the medical supplies has been hampered by delayed shipments and that orders that have arrived have been smaller than expected.

Premier Stephen McNeil said Monday Nova Scotia has received “portions” of its order but said Ottawa should prioritize sending supplies to central Canada, the hot spot for the pandemic.

Just as the novel coronavirus is expected to surge in Canada, the country’s ability to source the equipment was further hampered by an order from the White House that granted its emergency management agency the power to restrict exports of some of those goods. Mr. Trudeau said his government is having “productive and positive” talks with American officials to get an exemption.

Late Monday, Minnesota-based medical supply maker 3M announced it had made a deal with the Trump administration that will allow it to resume exporting N95 masks to Canada and Latin America. But it’s not clear whether other companies will also be allowed to continue exports.

Procurement efforts have also hit roadblocks further afield. Quebec sent a plane to China to pick up masks – only to wait on the tarmac, according to a senior source. A convoy of trucks that was supposed to deliver the masks did not arrive. It later became clear the masks never left the factory. It’s unclear why. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

Countries around the world – and Canada’s provinces and hospitals – have plunged into a frenzy of buying in China, seeking as many supplies as they can.

People involved in attempting to secure masks and other protective equipment described it as a lawless market, filled with fakes, charlatans and price gougers.

What was once a world of low-friction trade has quickly become “a world of the Lord of the Flies,” said Elliot Tepper, a political scientist at Carleton University. He said the pandemic could force a shift away from globalization to domestic self-reliance for vital goods.

For now, though, countries are seeking to grab what advantage they can from international trade.

The government of Canada, for example, has struck an agreement with Chinese car maker BYD for the production of tens of millions of masks – 30 per cent of them equivalent to the N95 masks that are most crucial to health-care workers – and millions of litres of hand sanitizer fluid, the source said. BYD has converted some of its automaking capacity to making medical equipment.

It’s not clear when those supplies will arrive.

Ottawa has attempted to leverage some of the connections maintained by Ambassador Dominic Barton. He previously led the global operations of consultancy McKinsey & Co., which worked for large state-owned enterprises and private firms across China.

But individual provinces have been working without key staff in China. Representatives from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec were deemed “non-essential” by the federal government and pulled out of the country when the virus began to spread more broadly. Some Chinese staff remain at work. But Quebec’s offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao and Shenzhen are all closed.

The government of British Columbia decided late last year to shutter its offices in China. Its locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong all formally closed on March 31.

With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria, Adrian Morrow in Washington and Laura Stone in Toronto.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.