Canada’s COVID response requires more imagination and innovation
As the pandemic continues, it’s time policymakers learn from the virus itself. Much like COVID-19 adapts and evolves into more contagious forms, so should the government policy response adapt and evolve to become more effective. Our policy response to-date—at both the federal and provincial levels—has been largely reactive rather than proactive, with decisions and implementation occurring with a lag.
Indeed, our leaders including politicians, bureaucrats and public health officers have lacked the imagination to get ahead of the curve. One wonders if given the cumbersome committees behind the pandemic response management (in Ontario alone the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has three leaders, 32 members and a secretariat of 12), government might have been better off adding a few science fiction writers and economic historians to help advise them on the pandemic effects and response.
Farfetched? Anyone familiar with Earth Abides (1949), The Andromeda Strain (1969) or Pandemic (2017) might have been quicker to realize the warning signs last spring and moved more quickly to implement lockdowns and travel restrictions. And someone familiar with work on historical plagues by Guido Alfani and Tommy E. Murphy or Beach, Clay and Saavedra would know how serious the economic and social impacts may be.
In Canada, and indeed many countries, the failure to get ahead of the curve has made the protracted lockdown the tool of choice and ultimately resulted in the slow strangulation of economic and social life in the country. It’s not that lockdowns are ineffective, but they are one weapon and should be employed when transmission is clearly out of control. They should be short, sharp and comprehensive with clear, simple and enforced rules. In Canada, our lockdowns—like the travel restrictions, vaccine distribution efforts, masking guidelines and just about everything else—have been plodding, porous or uneven.
Obviously, lockdowns carry a substantial economic price and used continually will have long-term effects. According to national economic evidence from the IMF, in 2020, the more stringent the lockdown and social-distancing measures, the greater the economic contraction. The effect of lockdowns on workers in lower-income service jobs and small businesses have been particularly brutal. We are already being prepped that the new virus variant’s third wave is coming and we may need another lockdown. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said one-third of businesses in Ontario will likely not survive the current second lockdown. COVID may also produce a dearth of entrepreneurs and aggravate Canada’s already weak capital investment performance.
It’s worth noting that well-paid professionals, who’re able to work from home and may not fully relate to Canadians in other lines of work, are responsible for recommending lockdowns.
So what to do until vaccine herd immunity is acquired?
First, lockdowns should only be used in emergency situations and be regionally targeted at hotspots. The message should be simple. Stay home with your immediate family as much as possible and reserve trips only for work, to buy gas and food, or for medical prescriptions and treatment. When outside your home, always wear a mask. And government should distribute masks more freely, especially in areas with vulnerable and homeless populations.
Second, more frequent and widespread testing is needed with contact tracing and isolation, as evidence shows a clear link between more testing and fewer deaths from COVID. Testing should be ramped up when there are outbreak clusters. One year into the pandemic, we’re still waiting for the diffusion of widespread rapid testing with the federal and provincial governments engaged in finger-pointing over delays.
Indeed, more progress has been made on the testing front, in spite of government efforts, by private companies working together to try to reopen their workplaces. Where’s the innovation when it comes to public health? Why have public health units not set up mobile rapid-testing vans that make house calls? Why don’t public health units offer tests and advice to people out and about?
History tells us that pandemics have happened before and they will happen again. We must learn to live with COVID much like our ancestors learned to live with the infectious diseases of their time. With the advantages of hindsight, more advanced medical treatments, knowledge and vaccines we can surely do better.