From the desk of the Hon. Andrew Leslie, Senior Associate, Lt. General (ret’d), PC, CMM, MSC, MSM, CD, MA
Lives have been lost, families devasted and economies battered. The coronavirus has become a global and national crisis on a scale not seen since World War II. There are haunting similarities to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which had approximately 500 million infected and a mortality rate of roughly 10 per cent. In a severe crisis, Canadians have traditionally rallied around their elected leaders and, true to form, government officials across the country are doing quite well in the court of public opinion during this pandemic, especially when compared to what is happening in other G7 nations.
However, once the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, it is expected that Canadians will ask their elected leaders some focused questions on what happened, what did we know, who knew it and when, and what can do to better prepare for the next time. When combined with the uncomfortable fact that much of the complex web of national and global institutions established to deal with global pandemics and economic meltdowns have not performed as hoped, one can almost feel the spectre of a public inquiry or Royal commission forming in the wings.
Calls for a public inquiry
First and foremost, history has shown us that the broader the inquiry’s mandate might be, the longer it takes and the more it costs, along with increasing degrees of partisan political manoeuvres if there is a subsequent change in government. The pragmatists and spinners might prefer a more modest investigative mandate that will look solely at what happened and how can we better prepare for the next time. This would be short and to the point, with lots of ammunition to jab prominent elected and expert leaders because they could not achieve perfection, despite being up to their eyeballs in life and death health issues that were unique in scope, intensity and economic impact, for which there was no playbook and a serious lack of global leadership or international harmony.
If the shorter and easier route is taken, however, we may be passing up on a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a focused national discussion not only about what happened but what we want to keep or modify from the various changes thrown at the pandemic; keeping in mind that these changes were made under conditions of extreme stress as Canadian leaders, at all levels, tried their best to keep the country relatively safe and the economies alive.
On the assumption that Canada will opt for the longer, bolder and more expensive royal commission, this route could be grouped under an overarching approach of before, during and after the pandemic, with final recommendations for the final portion. An important caveat in such an inquiry is that all work and findings should be developed as inextricably linked public health/safety issues with enormous economic implications.
In the beginning
The `before' component might want to look into:
who knew about it and whom did they tell;
what preparatory work had been done to prepare for a pandemic and related economic shocks and by whom;
how did the virus arrive and spread;
how were the federal and provincial governments set up to deal with it;
what preparatory work was initiated to repatriate Canadians who were abroad;
what international and national institutions were actively involved;
what legislative tools and process were available and used;
what went right and what went wrong with the availability of personal protective equipment and ventilators;
what was the capacity and cohesion of our multiple health care systems and how does this compare to near-peer nations; and
what could we have reasonably done faster or better.
Amid the pandemic
For the `during’ component, there should be an analysis of :
our emergency responders and what preparatory training and investments worked well and where can we improve;
how many and from where were tested/became infected/ill/hospitalized/ICU/ventilated/recovered/died;
what happened with each of the provincial and territorial governments, what legislative tools were enacted and what worked well;
how was the federal/provincial/municipal interface and the quality of communications and message cohesion;
which federal departments played prominent roles, what did they do and what could they have reasonably done better;
what fiscal and monetary measures were initiated to deal with the almost immediate massive levels of unemployment and the looming economic seizure;
how did the three levels of governments respond to the key issues;
was there national policy cohesion, and what was the role and impact of the health services and first responders, the role and resources of the security services and Canadian Armed Forces, the validity and accuracy of the various provincial and federal essential services lists and who should be added to them (truck drivers, grocery store staff, gas station attendants etc.), the successes and fragilities of the integrated food chain, the flow of information to the public by what means and to what effect, and the impact on mental health;
who and what were the international organizations or nations that were helpful, and cooperative to Canada’s needs, and who did we help;
what was the overall economic and social impact and costs; and
what could be reasonably improved and what can we better prepare for the next time.
When the pandemic is over
The `after’ component might essentially be the following:
What do we want to keep or permanently change within our national institutions and organizations, federal/provincial resource allocations and equalizations payments?
How do we improve our social and economic safety nets to better sustain such future shocks?
Do we/should we keep the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and make it a living wage for all those who need it?
Is this the opportunity to dramatically and heavily invest in our health care systems, and do we bring them under one central authority to achieve greater cohesion and resource sharing in an emergency?
What do we do about balancing privacy and the periodic need for contact tracing to help keep the majority safer?
Do we carry on with the environmental initiatives as planned, accelerate them, or drawback?
Should we adopt a far more nationalist and pragmatic philosophy of Canada first for national supply chains of essential goods?
Do we initiate Federal purchases of essential goods and services, including medical, defence and security-related acquisitions for the entirety of the national stocks, or do we keep the current system?
Do we revamp our fragile national transportation network with a stronger emphasis on rail, with corresponding legislation to protect this vital asset?
What do we do about the relatively poor performance of various international organizations?
How do we see our international presence changing to better meet the demands of tomorrow? Do we drawback in terms of people and funding, or do we take the opportunity to expand on our international engagements and invest further in multi-lateral institutions and helping the less fortunate?
For most Canadians the COVID-19 pandemic will become a life-defining moment, never to be forgotten. The toll to families in lives lost, those who got sick and associated mental health issues will be enormous. Our economy almost ground to a halt, millions were abruptly unemployed and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to staunch the damage. The least we could is to have an open, transparent and frank discussion about what worked, what needs improvement, and what changes do we want to keep or introduce into our way of life are so as to be ready for the future.