COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Canada were reduced in recent weeks and Canadians have felt frustrated and helpless at being asked to wait. We have watched with envy as other countries manufactured vaccines and inoculated their citizens.
Canada was similarly vulnerable at the beginning of the pandemic when countries scrambled to procure adequate supplies of masks, face shields and ventilators. With supply chains stretched out across the globe, we were at the mercy of other countries whose priority was to first provide for their own people.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fifty years ago, Canada was a leader in vaccine production. A series of privatizations by the Mulroney government, followed by massive funding cuts to scientific research and development by the Harper government, eroded our ability to manufacture essential medicines and vaccines within our own borders. Former and current Liberal governments have done little to rectify this situation.
Globalization and the desire to have efficient markets has resulted in Canada outsourcing and offshoring production of many essential goods and supplies needed for the well-being of Canadians. While cheap labour, less stringent workplace regulations and fewer environmental protections overseas might provide financial savings for governments, there is a cost to foreign procurement. When there is a spike in global demand for essential items, Canada has little control over when and if we will get what we need.
Our sovereignty as a country depends on being able to provide the basic necessities to all Canadians. Pandemic recovery requires that we invest more in Canadian production of vaccines, essential medicines and goods. Governments at all levels can support Canadian businesses by using public funds to purchase products and services locally. Investing in local research and development attracts business partnerships with scientific institutions and fosters job and economic growth for Canadians.
Resiliency and efficiency are desirable characteristics of systems. However, putting too much emphasis on efficiency at the expense of resilience can will leave us vulnerable and unable to respond to unexpected events. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that this is particularly true for systems like health care and long-term care.
Before the pandemic, cutbacks to the health care system have resulted in many large urban hospitals across Canada being over-stretched and operating at more than 100% hospital bed capacity on many days of the year. When the pandemic struck, we had no choice but to withdraw vital services like surgery or cancer treatment.
For decades, provinces have also been privatizing long-term care in the name of efficiency. But what we are getting through this process is unsafe care for our seniors and poor value for our money. Canada has the worst record among wealthy nations for COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes.
There is abundant evidence that private for-profit homes provide inferior care compared to publicly-run seniors homes. Business practices such as inadequate staffing, overcrowding of residents and fewer health and safety protections are required to turn a profit for shareholders at the expense of quality care for our loved ones.
Instead, we need to build resilience into our systems. We need to value quality and safety over economic efficiency. We need to see the delivery of public goods like health care and senior care as the investments they are. We must not let politicians convince us that the well-being of Canadians, young or old, is a frivolous expense to be minimized.
We deserve to receive essential health services in a timely and dignified manner without long wait lists or care in hospital hallways due to lack of available beds. The health care system needs adequate staffing and funding so that it is not operating at or over capacity even in normal times. Creating a safety margin to accommodate unexpected or less frequent events like pandemics or natural disasters is part of good planning and emergency preparedness.
In the senior care sector, we need to hire adequate numbers of workers, provide them with appropriate training and ensure they have safe and decent working conditions. We need to pay them wages and benefits to match the value of the services they provide.
Nobody knows when an end to the pandemic will be declared. But we don’t have to wait until then to build our capacity for resilience and self-reliance. The time to act is now.
By Vamini Selvanandan© 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on February 18, 2021. Photo credit: Càetia Matos on Pexels.com.
Government of Canada. From risk to resilience: An equity approach to COVID-19
Christopher Nemeth et al. Minding the Gaps: Creating Resilience in Health Care