Opinion: Targeted measures needed to improve Canada’s national defence against pandemics and other catastrophic events

Guest Contributor
July 28, 2021

COVID-19 offers a singular opportunity to examine Canada’s planning and preparedness (or not) for catastrophic events. Over 25,000 Canadians have fallen victim to the pandemic, and a further 1.3 million have been infected. COVID-19, thus, is a major national security event and a public health challenge.

The question is, does our system understand risk and use it to ensure the protection of Canadians against catastrophic events? If protecting Canadians at home from catastrophic events such as pandemic disease and extreme climate change are not national defence challenges, what are?

Unlike other events since the 2001 terrorism events, this pandemic has challenged all levels of governments (local/municipal, provincial/state, national/international) both simultaneously and over sustained periods of time. Pandemics, generally not factored into emergency planning, exposed leadership, preparedness and capability challenges across all levels of government.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) lists global risks most likely to become critical threats to the world. Infectious diseases are the top-ranked risk by impact to the world in the short-term, according to the WEF, and the Canadian government proposed $512 million over the next two fiscal years in Budget 2021 to address gaps in Canada’s biomanufacturing ecosystem. When taking into account the $77.6 billion in new total spending over the next two fiscal years, investments that could help prepare us for the next global pandemic to threaten our economic and social structure makes up only total 0.6 percent of new proposed spending.

Global Advantage Consulting Group analyzed Budget 2021 to ascertain the degree to which the budget responded to upcoming economic, societal, environmental, technological and geopolitical risks. Despite $143 billion of commitments over the next five years, Budget 2021 fails to address, accommodate or even refer to many of the threats currently facing Canada. Rather, focus was almost holistically on social expenditures, with 81.4 percent of announced spending in 2021-2020 and 2022-2023 designated for social programs.

COVID-19 was a “preventable disaster”

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response stated that COVID-19 was a preventable disaster. Yet countries, including Canada, largely took a “wait-and-see” approach to what was occurring in Wuhan, even after the Public Health Emergency of International Concern declaration in January 2020.

Years of inadequate funding and stress testing by countries prefaced an increase in zoonotic diseases. Yet global leadership was inadequate while response and preparedness were slow and insufficient.

A review of the last three mandate letters for Canada’s health ministers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic exposes that there was no leadership on preparing for, or responding to, a global pandemic as a priority in the health portfolio. This is a critical gap that has only been addressed post-facto.

Further, a Parliamentary Committee heard two weeks ago that poor intelligence gathering, faulty risk assessments and an inexperienced Public Health Agency of Canada exacerbated the pandemic’s effects in Canada.

Beyond the failures of our disease surveillance and intelligence system, including where Canada had developed world-class capabilities such as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, Canada also has tools such as the All-Hazards Risk Assessment (AHRA) to support decision-makers. This tool enables governments to proactively develop technical capabilities to combat national security events, whether they be man-made or originate from nature, such as pandemics.

The AHRA model, first developed in Canada after September 11, 2001, to understand the requirements for preparedness against extremely rare, high-impact events, such as chemical, biological or radiological terrorism, served to identify gaps and capabilities and prioritise scientific and technological solutions against the highest risks.

The AHRA has been employed to focus and prioritize emergency preparedness capabilities, with an emphasis on science and technological solutions that enable the response cycle: preparedness, prevention, response and recovery, mostly for the first-responder communities at the fore of safety and security events.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic identified areas where the AHRA did not sufficiently consider the impact and response requirements for slow-onset, long-duration events that are pan-jurisdictional in scale — both national and global.

National preparedness plan, pandemic coordinator needed

In 2019, the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness was directed to develop a national risk profile that would inform local and provincial governments and build national resilience to respond with targeted measures. This should give the government an opportunity to address gaps in the methods as well as institutionalize risk assessment across all departments whose preparedness is required to manage catastrophic events.

The Independent Panel lists several recommendations for national governments to increase preparedness for future pandemic events.

Canada can allocate funding and resources to develop a national preparedness plan with targets and benchmarks agreed to by provincial and municipal governments. This could ensure there is the right talent, operational capabilities, and technical means to respond quickly and protect Canadians. Canada should appoint a national pandemic coordinator with the mandate to coordinate preparedness and response plans.

Medical countermeasures will always be at the core of managing a pandemic. We need to ensure we have the capacity to manufacture, procure, and deploy all tools necessary to provide vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics equitably to all Canadians. Budget 2021 contains proposed spending of $2.2 billion over seven years to measures that support the growth of Canadian life sciences firms and biomanufacturing capacity, so we can secure vaccine production, research, and procurement in the future.

We prepare on the basis of risk, and we act on the basis of threat. Risk assessments were clear in showing the need for pandemic preparedness and disease surveillance foretold the coming outbreak. Experts state that Canada’s pandemic response issues were avoidable and lessons must be learned to prepare our national defence against catastrophic, pandemic events.

Dr. Camille Boulet, PhD, is Senior Partner, and Daniel Katz is Lead Research Analyst at Global Advantage Consulting Group Inc. in Ottawa.

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