What lessons can Canada learn from the COVID-19 crisis?
The Example of Taiwan
If we look at the example of Taiwan, there's a lot we can learn. In late January both Taiwan and Canada reported their first presumptive cases of COVID-19. By early February, Taiwan was in the top 10 countries with COVID-19 outbreaks. They have now dropped to number 100 on the list of countries affected by the virus with 393 cases and 6 deaths. Canada is number 12 on the list with over 26,000 cases and almost 900 deaths. How did Taiwan's government manage to deal so effectively with the outbreak there? The answer is that while other countries, including Canada, spent the early weeks of the outbreak waiting for the science, Taiwan invoked the precautionary principle and prepared for the worst.
My older brother Seamas lives and works as a teacher in Taiwan. His wife hasn’t stopped working at all during the healthcare crisis there. The students my brother teaches missed an additional two weeks of school after their winter break but they are all back in class now. My brother and his students wear masks in class and the students use plexiglass shields on their desks while they eat their lunches. Parents take the temperature of children every morning before they go to school and keep them home if their temperature has increased.
Taiwan was hit hard by the SARs outbreak in 2003 with 668 cases and 181 deaths. They learned from that outbreak and applied the plan they had in place as soon as they saw the outbreak of the strange new flu virus in Wuhan. Taiwan already had a stockpile of masks in case of a pandemic but in early February they ramped up domestic production of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and hand sanitizer for the general public. They got several factories to re-tool and ramp up production of PPE and included the army in production.
They banned hoarding, limiting purchases and created huge fines and even jail time for anyone raising the price of PPE. They set cleaning standards for all public buildings and public transportation and installed hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. People who travel between cities either by plane, train or bus must get a thermal test done to check their temperature before they are allowed to travel. Every week, all residents in Taiwan are eligible to pick up three masks at the pharmacy at an allotted date and time. Everybody wears masks out in public, at work and at school.
Taiwan has not had to do extensive testing, with only 2,000 tests per million compared to Canada’s 11,500 per million. They have also not had to use the more invasive contact tracing methods that South Korea has used, with phone apps that monitor people's health and track their movement.
PPE for the People!
Once we have sufficient PPE to ensure that all our health care professionals have what they need to be protected, then it will be time to get PPE for the people. We need rations of masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes made available for every Canadian, so we can all get back to work, visit our extended families and enjoy our daily life.
COVID-19 and Climate Change
There are lessons from this COVID-19 crisis that we can incorporate into our response to the climate crisis - a crisis we’re already in the midst of that will unfold in much more serious and life-threatening ways. We need a Canadian Climate Science Officer equivalent of our Canadian Public Health Officer. A top expert to work closely with, and advise, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, exactly as our Public Health Officer works with the Minister of Health. Now that most of us understand what “flatten the curve” means, we need to act together to flatten the curve on climate change.
Globalization has not just allowed for the trade of goods and services around the planet it has also allowed for the rapid spread of disease, and the rapid destruction of the environment on which we rely for survival. Climate scientists have predicted that the changes to our environment will create more pandemics in the future. We have seen how the globalized supply chain has made Canada vulnerable to shortages in PPE. We are also becoming more conscious of the vulnerability of our food systems. Growing local food not only lowers the carbon footprint of what we eat, it’s the key to feeding our communities through a crisis. The time to ramp up Victory Gardens and support our local farmers is now.
Bail out the people and the planet!
As we emerge from this crisis we need to ensure that we have also learned the lessons of the 2008 financial crisis. Rather than bailing out the banks and large corporations we need a bail-out for people and the planet. Government funding for re-invigorating the economy needs to be done through a climate action lens. We can immediately support energy workers by enlisting them in the clean-up of abandoned oil wells and rehabilitation toxic oil sands mines. Let’s put Canadian tradespeople to work retrofitting our public buildings for energy efficiency, and building the renewable energy infrastructure we need: geo-thermal plants, solar, wind and tidal energy projects. Rather than propping up obsolete fossil fuel infrastructure projects, let’s provide a just transition for energy workers so they can upskill and find long term security in the new energy economy.
The Most Important Lesson
We need to continue to be vigilant during this pandemic, follow the instructions of public health officials, and keep up our physical distancing so we don’t inadvertently spread the virus. All of us are making sacrifices, some more than others. Our health care workers are putting their lives on the line. Some of them are unable to spend time with their immediate families because they don’t want to jeopardize the health of their families or their patients. Many small businesses in our communities are on the brink of bankruptcy and business owners could lose their life savings if this drags on too long. Many people have lost significant portions of their income and are struggling to survive on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. We need to take care of each other. We are all in this together. The most important lesson in all of this is that life is more important than money. This is the lesson we must internalize and carry with us as we struggle to deal with climate change, and all of the crises that will bring.