Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a press briefing from his front doorstep on Tuesday.
It was the familiar message: Ottawa is doing everything in its power to protect Canadians. Frontline workers are heroes. Yes things are tough, but if we can hang on just a few more months, things will look much brighter. Oh, and there’s a new loan program on the way: we may not be able to get vaccines as promised, but we can always go deeper into debt.
It was meant to be reassuring, and Lord knows Canadians need reassurance. But in the 12 months since COVID-19 appeared, the vast majority of Canadians have done what they’ve been asked, made the adjustments and endured the discomforts. It’s governments that have come up short against a virus that has infected 100 million people worldwide and killed 2.2 million.
At both federal and provincial levels administrations have proved to be ill-prepared, ill-informed, poorly coordinated, slow off the mark and erratic in their efforts. Stockpiles of protective masks were allowed to expire and not replaced. An early warning system for pandemics was shut down. Canada’s ability to develop and manufacture vaccines was left to wither. Pharmaceutical policies discouraged research and development.
Canada’s Public Health Agency pushed aside expertise in favour of bureaucracy. An internal report found it “did not have the breadth and depth of human resources required to support an emergency response of this never-seen-before magnitude, complexity and duration.”
“Management noted multiple capacity and skills gaps across the agency,” it said. In particular, managers “noted limited public health expertise, including epidemiologists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and physicians at senior levels.”
A public health agency that has a shortage of “public health expertise?” It may sound comical, but once the crisis began the shortcomings were evident. Ottawa initially took China at its word that the outbreak was in hand. Trudeau put his trust in a joint vaccine plan with China and was caught short when Beijing reneged. Supply and production issues have bedevilled preparations, and the rollout across the country has hit repeated road bumps, with Canada trailing the U.S., Britain and other Western countries in getting the shots into arms. All this on top of poor communications, contradictory messaging, ineffective shutdowns and a flood of federal money that’s often proved more impressive in volume than in impact.
The frantic tone of pleas for Canadians to abandon travel plans reflects a government that is nearing wits’ end. Only now is it getting serious about controlling travel at airports, and still hasn’t worked up a game plan for preventing the airline industry from expiring in the process. Despite “the poor choices of a few,” as the prime minister puts it, Canadians have mostly adhered to pleas to stay home, wear masks, keep their distance, refrain from large gatherings and tough out what was supposed to be an exercise in “flattening the curve” only to see the curve shoot upward and the end get extended ever-further into the distance.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is preparing a budget she says will be “the most significant one of our lifetimes.” The plan, she says, is “going to be about jobs. It’s going to be about growth. It’s going to be about the middle class. It is going to be about healing the wounds of COVID. It is going to be about building a Canadian economy which is more innovative, more competitive, greener, more sustainable.”
Okay, it’s going to be about everything. Freeland and her boss evidently still see their job as reinventing Canada along the same lines as when they came to office. A day after Freeland spoke, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos revealed possible legal changes to force more diversity, inclusion and accessibility in public service hiring. Not to disparage diversity and inclusivity, but the Liberals’ compulsion to place bureaucratic parameters ahead of experience, expertise and merit sounds an awful lot like what weakened the Public Health Agency. Would the crisis have been better handled had the doctors, scientists and researchers been displaced by a more diversified brand of bureaucrats?
Rather than change everything, Trudeau and Freeland might be better advised to fix what we all now know is wrong. Canada’s healthcare system has been careening along for decades, always seemingly on the edge of crisis. Money is pumped into it yet the cries for more never fade. COVID-19 has shown just how desperately change is needed, and how effectively it’s discouraged.
A year into a pandemic in which almost 90 per cent of the deaths are among people over 70 we have yet to make long-term care homes safe and secure. Health-care workers are overwhelmed, exhausted, dispirited. Canada’s cack-handed approach to research, investment, delivery, supplies, human resources and better management across the health system is in desperate need of improvement, yet Ottawa is still talking about greening the economy, making the rich “pay their fair share” and arguing about who can cross whose borders.
Maybe just get this one thing right and save the revolution for later. Canadians won’t discourage the effort.