How should Canada prepare for future pandemics?
The views on that vary among major political parties vying for votes during a fourth wave of a deadly pandemic that has yet to be quelled.
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That leaves voters having to carefully judge the plans those parties are putting forward to protect Canadians, as experts say there will certainly be more pandemics to come.
“To borrow a line from Battlestar Galactica, this has happened before and will happen again,” said Dr. Raymond Tellier, an infectious diseases expert and medical microbiologist at McGill University in Montreal, referring to the fact the world will continue to see new pandemics emerge.
There will be more pandemics
COVID-19 has shown Canadians the devastation pandemics can cause — to people, families, society and the economy — as well as the considerable challenges of bringing them under control.
“What this particular pandemic has raised Canadians’ awareness to is the fact that public health crises like this can happen,” said Dr. Jane Philpott, a physician and former federal health minister, who is not involved in party politics at this time.
“And lots of experts have predicted that the gap between this one and the next one will be shorter … so, we need to be prepared.”
How Canada will move forward in future will depend, in part, on politics.
Domestic production for vaccines
The political parties are in agreement that Canada needs to be able to source domestically produced vaccines, rather than rely on external providers, as it did with COVID-19.
The Liberals said their government “has done whatever it takes to keep Canadians safe,” including implementing a vaccine-procurement strategy they credit with helping the country achieve a comparatively high rate of vaccination.
But the party said that “the pandemic laid bare that a decades-long decline in our domestic biomanufacturing capacity needed to be reversed.”
To address that, the Liberals said their government made “significant investments” relating to the research and production of vaccines and therapeutics. This includes plans to build an mRNA vaccine production plant in Canada.
The Liberals haven’t released their campaign platform yet but say “pandemic preparedness featured prominently” in the last federal budget. The Conservatives and the New Democrats, meanwhile, have laid out their views on the issue in their own platforms.
The Tories say they’d “ramp up” capacity to research and produce needed vaccines and medicines in Canada, “putting in place a sector strategy to grow the sector in a well-thought-out way rather than just handing out money.”
Additionally, the Conservatives want to “use procurements by government and those receiving government funding” to boost domestic production of personal protective equipment (PPE). They would also reinstate a tariff on imported PPE products.
The New Democrats agree Canada must produce vaccines, but they would “establish a Crown corporation charged with domestic vaccine production” to do so. The NDP also pledges to ensure “Canada maintains an adequate and responsibly managed” PPE stockpile “with an emphasis on supporting domestic production.”
The Liberals say the pandemic “made clear” that more domestic PPE production is needed, which is why their government made investments to have N95 respirator masks produced here.
The Bloc Québécois also pointed to the lack of vaccine production in Canada as being a problem. In an email sent to CBC News ahead of the launch of its platform on Sunday, the party said it will be presenting solutions for rebuilding Quebec’s pharmaceutical industry.
The Green Party said in an emailed statement that it would ensure Canada has a “robust capacity for pharmaceutical manufacturing” and a sufficient PPE stockpile, while working to lessen the country’s overall dependence on global supply chains for essential goods and services.
The Greens would also invest in Canada’s health and long-term care systems, with an eye to improving the social safety net.
“If we are to be better prepared the next time a crisis strikes, we cannot let this chance slip through our fingers,” the party said.
Strengthened surveillance of threats
Both the NDP and the Tories call for a strengthening of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) — a system that is intended to flag potential public health concerns from around the globe.
The Conservatives also want to improve the sharing of “public health intelligence” both within the government and with provincial and territorial counterparts.
The New Democrats say they would “provide stable, long-term funding for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) so they can protect public health and be ready with surge capacity in the event of a crisis.”
The Conservative platform makes no mention of adjusting PHAC funding, but a party spokesperson told CBC News there are no plans to decrease it.
The Liberals said their government, in response to COVID-19, provided funds to PHAC that allowed it “to welcome more than 1,000 new employees and bolster its capacity in a number of critical areas.”
Room for improvement
Those outside the political system are also paying attention to the challenges Canada is facing — including those who have seen the public health system up close.
Philpott, the former Liberal health minister, said she sees a “long list” of things Canada needs to deal with before it confronts a future pandemic.
For her, improving public health capacity is the top priority.
“We have an enormous amount of work to do to improve the governance of public health, the funding for public health, the co-ordination across the federal landscape and the provinces and their internal regions,” Philpott said.
Ujjal Dosanjh, who served as Canada’s health minister from 2004-06 under then-prime minister Paul Martin, believes a national inquiry — after the pandemic is over — is needed to examine the country’s response to COVID-19 and what we can learn from it.
“We should all follow the science,” said Dosanjh, who is not involved with any party activities during the current election.
Keeping scientists supplied
Science will remain key for future pandemics — in understanding them, responding to them and halting them.
That means that in addition to vaccines and PPE, scientists will need the proper supplies to do their work.
McGill’s Tellier said something happened during the COVID-19 pandemic that he’d never seen before.
“We had a shortage of supplies to run tests,” he said.
That was because of the global scramble to source them, which has led Tellier to conclude there should be a stockpile of needed reagents and supplies for laboratories.
Voters and public health
Kathy Brock, a professor at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ont., said Canadians “tend to focus on the bread-and-butter issues” during elections.
The current pandemic crosses into this context because of the havoc it wreaks on people’s lives and their ability to support themselves and their families.
“Canadians want to know that the government is going to protect Canadians,” she said.
Brock said it’s important for voters to consider “what the parties are promising and whether or not their strategies are really realistic” on these issues.
Philpott said public health issues tend to recede from the spotlight over time, and that needs to change.
“Public health is one of those things that kind of fades into the background of people’s priorities when they feel like they’re beyond the danger zone,” she said.
“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us — and certainly upon all of our leaders — to keep public health in the top priorities.”