Basic Medical Supplies and Moral Contract

Commentary, COVID-19, Healthcare & Welfare, Susan Martinuk

Finally on March 31, our Prime Minister announced that Canada will spend $2 billion to procure diagnostic test kits, ventilators, and the personal protective equipment (masks, face shields, gloves, gowns) that frontline healthcare workers require to carry out their duties during a pandemic.

Without the above, it is impossible for doctors to determine who is infected, to treat those with the most severe symptoms and, just as importantly, to ensure their own safety as they care for others.  

Many healthcare workers are, for now, breathing a sigh of relief. But before we sing the praises of those in power, it should be noted that these are the most basic medical supplies that are needed to treat respiratory disease, and the same government that kept warning us of a coming pandemic only took action to obtain them:

  • 67 days after Canada announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19;
  • 57 days after our federal health minister said that Canada had the “structures and systems” in place to tackle a public health emergency;
  • 34 days after Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer told the House of Commons Health Committee that Canada was doing well and, “We have contained the virus”;
  • 20 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic; and,
  • 19 days after our Deputy Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the government was listening to “our medical experts” and “they say that Canada is well prepared.” 

Obviously, both federal and provincial governments have had to deal with an overwhelming number of issues in the past couple of months. But the chatter about a shortage of masks and ventilators has dominated COVID-19 conversations from the very beginning and Canadians are becoming increasingly aware that there is a difference between what the government says about its degree of preparedness and the reality that currently exists at many of our local healthcare facilities.  

The problem has been evident for weeks. 

Face masks have been in short supply around the world. European countries and the United States have been scrambling to buy ventilators and repurpose factories to produce them. In Italy, the sheer number of critical cases has forced doctors to make life and death determinations about who gets the support of a ventilator. Hint: the young always win. 

We have seen the videos posted by Canadian healthcare workers who don’t have enough protective gear to ensure their safety. Some workers are bringing masks from home, while others are restricted to one face mask per day. In some areas, workers cannot utilize a face mask unless they are dealing with a patient who has already tested positive for COVID-19. 

By mid-March, Canadian doctors had had enough and began circulating a change.org petition citing “a critical shortage of COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, hand sanitizer, and medications” and calling on the Prime Minister, Canadian premiers, and all health ministers to provide them with the necessary protective equipment. At time of writing, the petition had collected about 175,000 signatures.

In the midst of all of this, the federal Health Minister stated that Canada had a stockpile of masks for domestic use and very kindly sent 16 tonnes of the highly-valued protective gear to China. Just after that, the Province of Ontario admitted that it had stockpiled 55 million facemasks after the SARS epidemic, but they were now expired and would be used only in an emergency.

How close were some hospitals to running out of supplies? On the very day that our Prime Minister announced his intention to deal with the shortages, Quebec’s Premier stated that it only had medical supplies to last four to seven days.   

This is unacceptable.

For three months, government leaders have talked about Canada’s stellar level of preparedness to deal with the COVID-19 crisis while, fortunately for us, Canada’s private sector has acted. Ironically, it was ordinary citizens who were quick to recognize the problem and adapt accordingly. Many companies (large and small) immediately did what they could to refit their factories and equipment to make hand sanitizer, protective face shields, masks, and even ventilators. 

The doctors, nurses, caregivers, and others who are our frontline workers are, and will continue to be, the major actors responsible for the health of Canadians. Just as we expect that they will carry out their duties and care for us, Canada has a moral obligation to care for them. That means providing them with the protective gear they need to remain safe and the medical supplies that they need to treat their patients.

Written contracts may not have been breached in this situation, but a moral contract has. Trust has been broken and we may all come to regret that at some point in the future.

 

Susan Martinuk is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.