We have been dealing with COVID for over a year now. It's clear that in North America and Europe we've failed on several fronts. Andrew Nikiforuk writes:
Canada’s failures mirror what many critics call a “total system failure” in public health throughout North America and Europe.
In contrast, many East Asian countries — applying the lessons learned from SARS — acted quickly and were prepared.
Some of those failures go back a long way:
Established after the 2003-2004 SARS outbreak in Ontario, the Public Health Agency was originally staffed and run by scientists. It’s National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg contributed to the global fight against Ebola and other diseases, and was world-renowned.
But under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the government replaced scientific experts with political operatives and bureaucrats at the agency and other ministries. For example, it demoted the chief medical officer to the role of adviser and installed a president with no scientific background as head of the agency.
The Liberal government did not correct these changes or the trend to downgrade scientific capacity in the government.
In 2019, the Liberal government further undermined the Public Health Agency’s pandemic mandate by neutering the role and function of Global Public Health Intelligence Network because the government no longer considered pandemics a real threat to national security.
And good people simply quit in frustration:
The Public Health Agency’s president, Tina Namiesniowski, resigned last November. And the head of the National Microbiology Lab, Matthew Gilmour, abruptly left the lab last May during the beginning of the pandemic.
Essentially six things went wrong:
1. Caught flatfooted on surveillance. The agency was not adequately prepared to respond to the pandemic, “and it underestimated the potential impact of the virus at the onset of the pandemic.”
2. Failure to practice responses ahead of time. Prior to COVID-19, the agency did not complete a test of the efficacy of its Federal/Provincial/Territorial Public Health Response Plan for Biological Events. It was going to simulate the impacts of an influenza pandemic.
3. No plan until pandemic was six months along. As a consequence of these failures, the agency didn’t complete a plan for the COVID-19 pandemic until August 2020 or six months after the declaration of a global pandemic.
4. No early alert. The agency’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network, whose job was to provide early warnings of viral trouble, did not issue an alert on COVID.
5. Misreading the COVID-19 threat. The federal government has launched an independent review of the effectiveness of the GPHIN and its contribution to public health intelligence domestically and internationally.
The Public Health Agency had a model for doing 24-hour rapid risk assessments on novel pathogens, but it had never been formally evaluated or approved. It rated COVID as a low risk.
6. Not making sure health measures were followed. In terms of border control, the auditor general found that the Public Health Agency “did not always meet the targets it set to verify whether travellers subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering Canada were following the quarantine orders” between March 31 and June 30, 2020.
The lessons are everywhere. Whether we will learn from them is an open question.