COVID-19 response should highlight what went right in Canada

Posted on August 10, 2023 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/ Contributors
August 10, 2023.   By Kwame McKenzie, Contributor

I am concerned that while we focus on relitigating the past we will allow useful, effective pandemic innovations to wither and die.

Over 53,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Canada, with more every day. It has been a traumatic time and we have just been returned to considering the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic by articles in a prestigious medical journal that focused on deficiencies in Canada’s pandemic response.

The authors call for a national inquiry. They hope an inquiry would offer an analysis of what went wrong, which could provide a framework for health care system improvement as well as allowing accountability for missed domestic and international obligations.

Calls for an inquiry are understandable even though experts note that advice from Canada’s last pandemic inquiry were not heeded. But I have a different worry. I am concerned that while we focus on relitigating the past we will allow useful, effective pandemic innovations to wither and die.

The Maori have a saying: we walk backwards into the future. We spend so much time focusing on things that went wrong in the past that we do not properly experience the present and we miss opportunities in the future. Inquiries can be important for reflection and catharsis but can lead us to focus too much on the past and on what went wrong rather than what went right. Building on what went right is a more solid foundation for the future.

The number of preventable deaths in long-term care was shameful; inequities in prevention and treatment for Indigenous and racialized people were egregious and Canada should have done more to meet its international vaccine donation responsibilities. These are weighty and important issues.

But it is also fair to say that Canada’s response was among one of the better ones for a high-income country. Thousands of deaths were avoided and there were a number of notable innovations that saved lives and could be a blueprint for health system transformation.

Here are 10:

  1. The creation of new expert groups at federal and provincial levels meant pandemic policies were driven by evidence and data. The federal government added ad hoc committees focused on issues such as mental health and testing and tracing to existing infectious disease expert groups. Ontario’s Science Advisory Tableworked tirelessly to ensure evidence was available to inform the public and provincial policy.
  2. Ontario’s law was changed so sociodemographic data could be collected. The province used those data to identify high-priority communities for targeted interventions and municipalities, such as Toronto, used the data to develop equity-based pandemic interventions which decreased disparities.
  3. Provinces, such as Manitoba, demonstrated that honouring Indigenous leadership, self-determination and collaborative approaches led to better pandemic outcomes.
  4. Governments realized that we need social policy as well as public health interventions to keep people safe. Ontario deployed strategies, such as eviction prevention, paid sick days, and access to health care for all in order to ensure the pandemic response was effective.
  5. The federal government brought in income protection schemes, such as the CERB, which helped people protect themselves and also decreased the number of people with mental distress linked to financial hardship.
  6. The vital function of third sector groups like the YMCA and United Way in our social care system was better recognized, leading to federal funding to support and build them.
  7. The health sector — not known for nimbleness — developed speedy, focused innovations, such as digital care to ensure access throughout the pandemic.
  8. Hospitals worked with long-term care homes, community health centres and communities to build cross-sector partnerships to support our most marginalized people.
  9. The importance of mental health for physical health and the economy became better accepted and federal and provincial governments increased access to services and supports.
  10. Canadians spent more time taking care of their health and the health of their communities decreased rates of other deadly infectious diseases, such as influenza.

There is a lot to be said for understanding the past and developing proper mechanisms of accountability. But we owe it to everyone in Canada to also make sure we know what went right and to build on it and preserve that progress.

Continuing and enhancing these 10 successes will mean a better more equitable health service and a society that is better prepared for the next challenge.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute.

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