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What Canada did right (and what it did wrong)

  • Published at 07:02 pm May 23rd, 2020
canada coronavirus hospital
They did a lot of things right / REUTERS

Polar ends of the political spectrum were united on this issue

Covid-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus, has wreaked havoc around the world. With over 80,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths as of May 21, Canada has been no exception to its carnage. However, there are certain aspects of dealing with the crisis where Canada has been quite exceptional.

Leaders across the political spectrum -- including ardent political foes -- have set aside partisan and regional grievances to come together to deliver highly effective response measures. From auto parts makers teaming up to build ventilators to medical students starting efforts to round up masks and other supplies, Canadians have risen to the occasion and rallied together to defeat the virus. 

And although Canada’s response has been orders of magnitude better than its neighbour the US, there are some key areas where it has faltered, especially compared to countries with the best responses -- like Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. Besides the overall impact these initiatives have had on the lives of Canadians, the implications for domestic politics have been quite interesting as well, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party disproportionately gaining over its opponents.

Health care efforts

The Canadian response has been informed and designed with health care experts at the heart of the decision making. The strategy to deal with this pandemic has been adapted from Canada’s recently updated influenza preparedness plan, including utilizing the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile originally established during the Cold War.

After Melissa Yuan-Innes, an emergency physician, helped organize the petition calling on Trudeau to engage in a “war-like effort” to arm front-line health care workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), he announced the allocation of $2 billion for PPE for front-line health workers, including bulk purchases with provinces and territories. Shortly after, it was announced that Ottawa had secured 17 million N95 masks and 157 million surgical masks and partnered with Amazon to help get PPE to front‑line health care workers.

Partnerships with Canadian industry to fight the Covid-19 crisis has also been an integral part of the government’s pandemic planning. Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM) mobilized a collective effort and put together a consortium of 12 manufacturers, most of whom had been shut down after being deemed non-essential services. Voluntary donations have played a role as well -- some examples include cannabis companies donating protective gear typically used to avoid contaminating their plants and products, and nail salons producing surgical masks and gloves.

Travel measures

Albeit a little late to the game in its travel advisories and travel health notices, Canada banned entry to foreign nationals (under the Aeronautics Act) and consolidated international inbound flights only to four major hubs. Ottawa also placed restrictions on transborder travel to the US and issued directives for domestic and outbound flights. According to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, cruise ships or ferries carrying more than 500 people will not be allowed to dock in Canada until July 1, when the restriction will be revisited.

Domestically, common social distancing protocols were also implemented, including school closures, suspension or cancellation of major sporting events, and other large public gatherings. In addition to dictating social distancing and self isolation, certain measures were pro-actively executed in anticipation of potential issues which might arise from them.

Economic and financial support

The government’s economic response plan consists of immediate support for individuals, businesses, and sectors facing hardship as a result of the pandemic. Notable initiatives include temporary salary top-up for low-income essential workers, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) which provides $2,000 a month for four months for eligible adults, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) covering 75% of an employee’s wages for struggling employers and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) of $1,250 to $2,000 per month.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau also announced the federal government’s decision to make $10bn available to businesses through a credit facility program, most of which would go to SMEs. This is on top of the $1bn for provincial health care systems, research, and support for workers and businesses. The total value of an aid package could be up to $20bn (Canadian) across the country, as reported by Reuters. The overnight rate target was also cut by half a percentage point to 0.75% in response to Covid-19 to support confidence in businesses and households, as announced by Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada.

Reasons behind the effectiveness

Canada’s success can be attributed to its universal single-payer health care infrastructure, extensive collaboration in a functional political system, and learning from past experiences, all of which proved vital in delivering an effective response and can serve as lessons for developed and developing nations alike.

Single-payer universal health care system

Canada, like all developed nations (with the exception of the US), has universal health care coverage, which covers most Covid-related medical expenses like testing, treatment, and hospitalization. The provincial and territorial governments are responsible for the management, organization, and delivery of health care with funding provided by the federal government. 

Although the coordination at these different levels of government is business as usual for the Canadian health care system, it is not well designed to cope with Covid-19. The system was on track for its capacity to be tested unless decisive actions were taken to address upcoming shortages in medical supplies, as stated by chief public health officer Theresa Tam. Thankfully, the government paid attention to such warnings and has been able to cope up with demand.

Collaboration at federal and provincial levels

Being the governing party with a minority in parliament, Trudeau’s Liberals were pressed into adopting some of the policies proposed by other parties, especially where their own proposals fell short. The federal government facilitated communication and forged unlikely relationships to develop an understanding about how resources would be distributed. 

An impressive aspect has been the ability of Canada’s provinces to work together with the federal government as well as among themselves on a response, in striking contrast to the US, where President Trump is making states compete for medical supplies. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto, says: “Polar ends of the political spectrum are completely aligned on how to manage the pandemic,” as is evident from no real difference in responses between provinces governed by Liberals and the opposition Conservative Party. 

Learning the lessons of the past

Canadian provinces that were hit hardest during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak -- like Ontario and British Columbia -- had ventilators stockpiled in case of emergency. After an unimpressive handling of the SARS situation, Canada really changed its ways around the design of its federal-provincial relationship with regards to public health, and especially infectious diseases, a process that spawned the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

The idea was to integrate federal governance into the public health sphere, aimed at improving public-health surge capacity, jurisdictional problems, testing shortcomings, and poor data-sharing protocols.

Oversights and missed opportunities

While Canada has done a decent job of dealing with the wide-ranging facets of the crisis, there are areas where the government’s actions have not been up to the mark, especially compared to nations that handled the pandemic the best. 

Canada could have been more decisive and quicker in its reaction pertaining to widespread testing, stricter isolation, and border controls -- measures considered most effective. Failure to imitate the success of some other nations in reducing transmission through wide-scale testing, followed by prompt tracing and treating, has led to loss of lives that could have been prevented. 

Officials have been particularly disappointing in relation to its oversight of long-term senior care facilities, which are linked to roughly half of all Canadians deaths (as of mid-April) and the indigenous population, who are isolated and acutely unprepared for an outbreak.

US Health Secretary Michael Leavitt said in 2006, “Anything we say in advance of a pandemic happening is alarmist; anything we say afterwards is inadequate.” Having said that, this is not a classic case of hindsight being 20/20, as these issues are persistent shortcomings in the Canadian health care structure that have not been effectively addressed. 

As Health Minister Patty Hajdu said, “Federal governments, for decades, have been underfunding things like public health preparedness. And obviously, governments across the world are in the same exact situation”.

Political implications

Though the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois have played a role in influencing the Liberals, Jagmeet Singh’s New Democratic Party deserves the most credit. As the Liberals keep appending to the original bills to fill gaps, Singh continues to reiterate the need to convert the CERB into a Universal Basic Income for any Canadian undergoing financial distress. He emphasizes that “means testing” or “fine tuning” policies during a crisis is not the best approach, as it potentially excludes too many vulnerable Canadians.

All this pressure has led to Trudeau’s Liberals increasing the CERB monthly amount from $1,000 to $2,000 and expanding it to cover students (CESB), as well as increasing the wage subsidy for small businesses from 10% to 75% and making Employment Insurance accessible to all workers. 

After an initial reluctance to do so, the Liberals succumbed to pressure from the other parties and also announced that corporations using tax havens will not receive bailouts.

As Canadians prepare for a gradual return to normal life -- under what could have been far worse conditions -- they are highly satisfied with the actions of the Liberals so far, as indicated by a 10 point surge in recent polling. 

The contribution of Singh’s NDP, however, has gone unnoticed. This is primarily a failure of Canadian mainstream media but the NDP should also shoulder some blame for failing to sufficiently promote their accomplishments. This is not to say that Trudeau’s Liberals do not deserve credit -- of course they do, for implementation of the policies, even if the best components were primarily championed by other parties.

“Addressing Covid-19 must be a Team Canada effort,” Trudeau said. And Team Canada has answered the call to action and delivered a commendable performance domestically as well as in its contribution to the international effort. It should explore and improve in the areas it lacked but its overall response has been what one should expect from a developed nation with a functional health care and political system. 

Imtiaz Arefin is a writer based in Canada.

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