March 6th, 2020
Latest coronavirus tests pandemic preparedness
The COVID 19 strain of the coronavirus has ground down travel, trade, and significant parts of the economy while public health officials try to limit its spread around the globe. In Canada, the Minister of Health has stated that the risk of infection remains low for individuals, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about the potential for a pandemic. That word alone sparks fear which only complicates matters. That’s why, in moments like these, it is critical for the government to be clear, measured, and accurate. Anything less leads to panic which makes things worse.
Events like this can also illustrate the differences between governments and countries. South of the border, the American President has politicized COVID 19 rather than deliver a unifying message. He has called it a Democratic (Party) hoax and said he doesn’t think it’s much of a threat. Additionally, the spread of the virus is playing out in the shadow of budgetary cuts the President made to the Center for Disease Control. Compare that to China, where the virus originates from. That country has tightly controlled travel and gone so far as prohibiting people from going to work in their attempt to control the outbreak.
In Canada we are potentially better-prepared to meet the public health challenges and, thankfully, no parties have attempted to politicize the virus. That could be due to other issues offering better opportunities for parties to attack the government on, but it may also be a product of the way we view health care. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in how the government has dealt with COVID 19 to date, but it is an encouraging sign.
This week a top Canadian health official said that while the federal government works to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it's also preparing a robust response plan in case containment fails. This is significant since, even though the virus is not challenging us at a pandemic level, it does allow us to test our preparedness which leads to improvements in the system. This will be critical if we do end up facing a different virus that meets the definition of a pandemic, such as the Spanish Influenza of 1918.
Up to now, the challenges have related to preparedness in real and practical term as well as battling misconceptions such as reports of discrimination levelled at Chinese-Canadians. While masks and hand sanitizer fly off the shelves, people are being asked to focus on ways they can minimize the spread of this virus, and others. One of the biggest challenges to that is the relative inability of low-waged workers to take time off when they are sick. Despite official advice for sick individuals to stay home instead of exposing others to illness, many low-waged workers do not have paid sick days and can’t afford to miss a shift. These same individuals often face demands to show up at work despite any illness they are dealing with. This intersection of public health policy and employment standards seems to favour the side of greater public risk which events like this illustrate.
Now, concern is mounting with outbreaks of coronavirus cases in Iran and Italy marking the first time that the new cases outside China exceeded those in China. While Canadian public health officials and experts continue to see COVID 19 as a low risk to Canadians, concerned MPs are calling on the government to take all the appropriate measure to avoid an outbreak. That includes screening, communication with Canadians, and international cooperation efforts such as those that will be needed to help Canadians stuck in Iran. That’s why you will see MPS calling on the government to consider the request made by Iranian Canadian Congress to provide consular services and repatriation. It isn’t politicizing a challenging issue, but ensuring all concerns are heard – and hopefully addressed.