As most of the nations of the developed world, including Canada, failed to prepare adequately for the current deadly COVID-19 pandemic, questions remain about what steps should be taken to forestall, or substantially mitigate the next microbial conflagration. While the current main weapon, the medieval quarantine, might still be part of the arsenal that could be used, there are likely more steps that can or should be taken. Our leaders have not shared their wisdom as to what those may be. They were supposed to have ways to handle a public health disaster without throwing half the population into penury, and most of the nation’s small businesses into what is tantamount to bankruptcy.
The first line of defense is to be on the alert for disease outbreaks around the world, and the avenues that a deadly virus, bacterium, fungus (which is very rare, but nasty) or prion-type biochemical agent (which caused the ‘Mad Cow’ pandemic in the 1990s, also very rare) could take to infect Canadians, or the over-one-hundred other nations with significant trade and flows of people with Canada.
It appears that particular attention should be given to those countries and areas with a history of transfer of exotic contagions from animals to people, and subsequent human-to-human transmission. China has such a history, with SARS and now COVID-19; so does central Africa, where Ebola and HIV came from; and other places such as Southeast Asia and tropical Latin America are also possible hotspots.
Information and medical statistics from some nations with undemocratic, authoritarian, non-transparent, corrupt or unaccountable governments should be assessed carefully and skeptically. China, for instance, did not let out information to the world that COVID-19 was spreading widely in Wuhan, where it started, until late in December, 2019. As late as the middle of January, 2020, it was still publicly insisting that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, which they knew was untrue a month earlier.
This assertion was uncritically repeated thereafter by the World Health Organization, ‘WHO’, before soon having to refute that claim. Pursuant to that, the WHO plainly cannot be relied upon for accurate information, as it seems to not wish to offend major donors or members; especially ones that are known to retaliate viciously (see the Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor detentions by Beijing after the extradition arrest of a Huawei executive at Vancouver airport in December, 2018).
When a microbe is authoritatively identified, and, ideally, genomically decoded, diagnostic tests need to be primed and ready to go quickly. There needs to be an ability to ramp up production and distribution of speedy and accurate tests for every location, nationally, to ensure that authorities are detecting and sending to treatment people who are infected or carriers of the contagion.
Once a disease of possible deadly character and infectiousness is identified as a threat, there should be means determined to alert health authorities as to what specific symptoms can be noted by health workers at airports and other ports of entry to Canada. Travellers from regions where the disease is spreading rapidly should be required to self-isolate at home for a short period. In the case of COVID-19, it is fourteen days, but could be shorter or longer for another ailment.
Contrary to current practice, there should be some penalty for escaping the quarantine – a fine of hundreds of dollars. Police should check on whether people are staying at home. This may seem Draconian and a violation of civil liberties, but we are currently experiencing even worse – and a severe recession as well. This proposal is far less and is already used in Taiwan, where rates of infection and death are dramatically lower than anywhere else. When infected travellers start to jump in numbers, travel bans need to be enacted immediately. Maybe the Woke Social Justice Warriors want to hug someone from Wuhan or Cremona, Italy. The rest of us are more reticent.
There should also be adequate medical supplies and ‘personal protection equipment’, ‘PPE’s’. Apparently, some of these items, such as masks and gowns, actually do degrade or suffer from dry rot if left in storage too long, but they could be replenished on a rolling basis. The current inventories of these things are plainly far too low for a pandemic. Other items, such as ventilators, might be specific or peculiar to COVID-19, but medical professionals should be able to identify some kinds of equipment that could be necessary for myriad sorts of diseases that have not yet been experienced in Canada. Then, generous amounts of all these items should be purchased. It might be expensive, yes, but unlikely to be of the magnitude of the financial and medical disaster that we and other nations are experiencing.
The financial aspect of all this should be examined in a hard-headed way. Instead of a wild scramble to borrow and fund a huge bailout for nearly everything, a Pandemic-National Emergency Insurance fund could be established. This could be a separate account for the government, with several billions of dollars sequestered in it each and every year until needed, or a separate entity entirely, funded with ‘Catastrophe’ bonds, which already exist and pay off when a cyclonic storm or earthquake hits a nation or region. The federal government could also establish a feature that could be part of business interruption insurance, in conjunction with the property and casualty or general insurance industry. Small businesses should find it easy and only incrementally more expensive to buy insurance with such a feature.
Finally, Canada must be less dependent on other nations, especially semi-adversaries such as China, for medical supplies and equipment, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and other things needed to keep people alive and our valuable health care workers safe. It should also not be dependent on nations whose manufacturing capability might be debilitated by the disease outbreak – as China also is. Other nations are trying to keep these products for themselves, and are having trouble manufacturing all that is needed. Secure and ample supply chains for these things are vital it now appears. Canada it seems cannot rely on the kindness of strangers – or even friends and allies. Local, vibrant innovative suppliers should be nurtured.
This is just a framework, compiled by a non-medical person. There are doubtless things therein that are incorrect, and others that are missing. This is just intended to be a starting point for developing a truly effective and vigorous set of steps as a response to the next medical disaster.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.