Susan D from Ottawa, Canada

4 November

Planning for pandemics and not

While Hans Rosling argued in his book, Factfulness, that “things are better than you think”, he did not ignore potential problems: “The five that concern me most are the risks of a global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change and extreme poverty”.

Serious experts on infectious diseases agree that a new nasty kind of flu is still the most dangerous threat to global health.  The reason is the flu’s transmission route.  It flies through the air in tiny droplets. … An airborne disease like flu, with the ability to spread very fast, constitutes a greater threat to humanity than diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS.  Protecting ourselves in every possible way from a virus that is highly transmissible and ignores every type of defence is worth the effort, to put it mildly. [1]

Yet making an effort to protect its citizens through planning and preparedness for an eventual pandemic has not always been a priority, not in the United States, and not in Canada either.  Canadians sometimes feel a little smug that we protect the bodies and invest in the minds of our citizens with good state-provided health care and education, smug especially when comparing ourselves to our neighbours to the South.  But both countries have failed to plan for a pandemic.  Both had systems in place and both have failed their citizens in one way or another.

During an early morning read at the breakfast table in early October one article in the Globe and Mail caught my attention, “Ending pandemic alerts was a mistake”.  I had missed the earlier article in July, ‘Without early warning you can’t have early response’: How Canada’s world-class pandemic alert system failed”.  The Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) was created as a medical alert system, gathering intelligence and spotting potential pandemics to warn the Canadian government and other countries so they could act early and quickly.  It was a globally respected system and a Canadian contribution to the World Health Organisation, but it went silent in early 2019 after the Public Health Agency issued an edict requiring staff to have approval from senior management before issuing warnings.  As resources were reallocated to other functions deemed more valuable by the government, the alert system effectively ceased operating in May of 2019, according to the article.  Not only functioning as an early warning system, GPHIN was intended to inform Canada’s assessment of risk.  Canada’s official risk assessment through January, February and into March was that the virus constituted a low risk to the country.

It is hard not to be critical of bungling by those who are charged with protecting us as the numbers ascend, numbers that look like milestones of failure:

  • more than 10,000 deaths in Canada,
  • more than 200,000 deaths in the US,
  • more than 1,000,000 deaths souls lost globally in this global pandemic.

And then came the US election to compound anxiety.

[1] Rosling, Hans, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. 2019. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think. London, England: Sceptre.

P.S. The weather report

The weather, mindful of our anxiety about the approaching winter has been gently hardening us off this week, much as we do for plants in the spring.  Last week on Monday it snowed a minor amount that soon melted away.  On Wednesday it snowed again, making the rooftops and trees and bushes look as though they had been generously dusted with icing sugar – not much, but more than Monday.  It too melted away over the course of the day.  But later in the week temperatures headed downwards and Monday of this week there was more than a dusting. Little by little we are being prepared for the long cold Canadian winter.


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