By Ian Pattison
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could hardly contain his excitement about plans for domestic production of a COVID-19 vaccine . . . when the facility is built . . . at the end of this year . . . with no production likely until 2023. And no wonder. He’s got little else to offer in terms of reassurance to Canadians who are rightly confused and frustrated over their governments’ performance to date.
It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus emerged from Wuhan, China -- how and from where, exactly, we still do not know. It was on Jan. 25, 2020, that this country’s first case was confirmed in a man who had travelled from Wuhan.
Since then, most of us have become willing conscripts in a world war against COVID, with masks, hand washing, sanitizing and distance our only weapons and patience in short supply -- along with vaccines.
We have watched governments in Ottawa and the provinces fumble just about every initiative they have made. PPE, masks, ventilators, tests, tracing, vaccines -- all have been handled disjointedly.
A federal pandemic storehouse of supplies had been allowed to dwindle. Domestic vaccine manufacturing was long-gone as Ottawa failed to convince drug-makers to stay, let alone encourage new facilities. Two Canadian firms that did have promise offered their services but were turned down.
Indecision has cost many lives and fortunes as Trudeau and the premiers tried to balance competing interests. Some activities were curtailed, but not all. Some businesses were allowed to stay open; others were ordered shut.
Canada decided early against border closures, mandatory quarantine and the mass use of masks by the public. Imagine what might have been avoided.
Still, on Jan. 29, 2020, Trudeau said, “Our health system is very well prepared to deal with the coronavirus in Canada.” We had struck a deal with a Chinese firm to test and ultimately receive a promising vaccine, delaying signings with Pfizer and Moderna. Shortly thereafter, China backed out of the deal, almost certainly because we were still detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Bad bet.
Since then we’ve acquired more vaccine orders with more manufacturers per-capita than any other country -- about nine doses per person. But we rank in the lowly middle in rates of vaccinations as our off-shore suppliers -- the ones with which we were supposed to have iron-clad contracts -- cut us off. Moderna won’t even give us a reason.
On Jan 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus to be an international public health emergency.
By March 5, 2020, Canada confirmed its first community case of COVID-19, a case with unknown origins that couldn’t be traced back to a particular international traveller. On March 9 2020, British Columbia announced Canada’s first death related to COVID. On the same day, Reuters reported that millions of face masks stockpiled by Ontario in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak to protect health-care workers during a future epidemic had expired.
On March 26, 2020, as Ontario hospitals were rationing masks, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a level four lockdown, and the entire country, aside from some essential workers, were required to self-quarantine at home.
After five weeks, the lockdown was lifted from level four to three. On June 8, 103 days after its first COVID-19 case, New Zealand lifted restrictions to an alert level one and declared that the country was free of the virus.
Australia took decisive action even earlier ordering lockdown and border controls a year ago.
Down under they knew what to do and were willing to do it. Canada knew too, but did not act decisively. And we continue to pay for a listless, directionless approach to a health emergency that might have been largely avoided.
THIS WEEK, Trudeau said that Canada’s major airlines have agreed to suspend flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30. But not the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil where more dangerous mutations of the coronavirus have emerged.
The virus doesn’t just magically appear; it has to come from somewhere to get somewhere. How else could it cross oceans but on planes? Travel restrictions have to be tough and universal.
Canada has just announced that arriving air travellers must get a COVID test before departure, then quarantine for three days in a hotel when they get here and take another test. Eleven months ago, New Zealand required every arriving air passenger into quarantine for 14 days.
Canada is now at a point where the mutated virus strains are spreading to more and more cities. Ontario Public Health expects a doubling every one to two weeks.
Vaccine delivery delays are putting all Canadians in more danger. Many of the mutant cases have no known link to travel. Which means those infections arrived in Canada among travellers and are now spreading within communities.
Failure to take effective and timely action from the beginning has forced successive but uneven restrictions on human activity and shut selected businesses, threatening our mental health and our economy.
Premiers are fond of bashing Ottawa but provinces are sitting on billions of federal dollars given them to help to re-open the economy because they won’t match the dollars as agreed.
Canada has the ability and the talent to be among the world’s leaders in beating back this pandemic. Our governments have largely squandered this advantage and we are all paying a series of terrible prices in suffering, death, mental anguish and business desperation.
This is a war. Isn’t it time our leaders acted like it?
With so much fretting over the future of Thunder Bay’s rail manufacturing plant, recently sold by Bombardier to Alstom, some reassurance is offered.
Prior to the Jan. 29 closing, I asked Alstom for anything it could provide about its plans for Thunder Bay. Michelle Stein, Alstom’s North American communications director in New York replied:
“Alstom’s acquisition of Bombardier Transportation is a unique opportunity to accelerate Alstom’s strategic roadmap. Following this transaction, Alstom will benefit from additional state-of-the-art technologies and complementary R&D resources, allowing it to consolidate its innovation lead in the field of sustainable mobility solutions. The acquisition of Bombardier Transportation will bring complementary geographical presence to Alstom to broaden its commercial reach, notably in North America.”
Here’s the good part: “Following the closing of the acquisition, Alstom will continue to strengthen its presence in Canada, and recognizes the talent and expertise of Bombardier Transportation in Thunder Bay.”
It isn’t definitive but it is certainly encouraging.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.