The federal government delivered some good news on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that companies across the country had been registered to produce badly needed hospital gowns and ventilators.
A day earlier, Ottawa said 3M would resume shipping of N95 masks to Canada, after the Trump administration initially ordered US companies to stop exporting them.
And in Ontario, Prime Minister Doug Ford said a local company now produces a supply of provincial-made masks, and could eventually produce one million per week.
There are still concerns about Canadian hospitals running out of protective equipment for health workers, and ventilators for the sickest patients, in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases. It seems, however, that at least progress is being made in the race to get the gear needed.
That is thanks to the strength of the administration and expenditure of the Canadian government. But as much as this moment is a reminder of their need in crisis, it is also an example of what happens when they fail to prepare themselves for a predictable disaster.
Ottawa and the provinces should be far better prepared. Canada was one of the countries hardest hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003, and suffered from being unprepared.
That leads to an investigation of what happened, and how this country can do better. Several recommendations were adopted in Ontario, and have been helpful in responding to COVID-19. And Ottawa created the Canadian Public Health Agency, a key player in the current battle, in 2004.
But planning for a future pandemic is still far from adequate. Nothing is more symbolic than Ontario comedy about mistakes about purchasing and storing emergency medical supplies.
In 2017, the Auditor-General of Ontario reported that, after SARS, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care spent $ 45 million 26,000 pallets masks, face shields, needles, disinfectant wipes, disposable thermometers and other items needed in the outbreak. Inventory even included 55 million N95 respirator mask.
However, the auditor general found that more than 80 percent of the inventory had passed the expiration date and could no longer be used.
Government explanation? That in itself does not provide a budget for managing and filling inventory.
That’s too much. But this is also politics. As public memories of SARS fade, pressure on the government to spend money in preparation for the next outbreak fades with him. The Auditor-General’s comments on decaying supplies in the province were largely unknown until Reuters report it almost three years later, when the coronavirus crisis was now rising.
If you ask Canadians now if they expect the government to spend more money on pandemic preparedness, they will say yes. And when the inevitable question looks back to what is right and wrong in 2020, there will be no doubt about maintaining a well-managed inventory of masks, ventilators and testing equipment, and better training and planning.
But what happens five years after that, or 10, if there are no other pandemics and politicians who vow not to waste a dime when it comes to preparedness to hear that voters refrain from cutting expenses and lowering taxes?
What happens if, a decade after the last person dies in this outbreak, there is a major error reported only in a single paragraph from the 1,121-page auditor general’s report, as does the pile of destroyed Ontario medical supplies?
Pandemics are not like other emergencies. Their scarcity is only offset by their potential to kill, to be hospitalized, and to do great damage to the economy if proper preparation is not available.
How can the public maintain pressure on the government to stay alert to events that hopefully will not happen? And how can politicians convince voters, many of whom unjustly believe that government spending is always a waste, to enable them to continue to spend a lot of money in preparation for a pandemic?
In a country that has somehow been shocked by an emergency flood every spring, this is a good question. We will offer a solution, this weekend.
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