Mistakes have been made. Lessons must be learned.

by Walter Robinson

COVID-19 combines the economic shocks of the Spanish Flu, the ‘Dirty Thirties’ and World War II all into one. The impact on people’s lives, the global economy and society will echo for generations.

Despite 20 years of worldwide disease outbreaks – SARS, H1N1, MERS, Zika – we and our leaders in politics, public service, business and labour were too wrapped up in a Cassandrian world view to see, acknowledge and prepare for the axiomatic truth: this pandemic was coming.

Just watch the 4 minute-2 second clip of President George W. Bush on YouTube from November 2005 at the U.S. National Institutes of Health: his 3-point plan was not followed by any government and his predictions applied to our current state are, prophetic.

Ah life, where evolution abhors arrogance and reality humbles hubris, sans exception.

So, even as health professionals and poorly paid essential services workers risk their lives, politicians and civil servants unveil sweeping support programs, public health issues daily directives, and scientists race to validate antiviral treatments and create a vaccine, we must turn our thoughts to this Fall or Winter and lay the groundwork for the unavoidable ‘come to you-know-who’ conversation.

Mistakes have been made. Lessons must be learned. This cannot happen again.

A growing erosion of trust is evident in daily news coverage and the conversations on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn which are the proxies for coffee shop, water cooler and dinner party chatter now so absent from daily life. What started as a “we’re good, #InThisTogether” chorus has been supplanted by a “what else will they – aka some top-level government and health officials – change/get wrong next” malaise.

Consider the record of public health and elected officials since late-January about the low risk of disease transmission, repeated assurances that stockpiles of PPE were flush, the supposed folly of closing our borders, and outright dismissal of those who asked if we should wear masks in public.

Part of this is due to an over-reliance on the guidance of the WHO, which fostered early timidity in public health declarations and further fueled the political incrementalism that has driven our body politic, with a shortlist of policy exceptions, since the days of Mackenzie King.

Let’s be blunt: our democracy is too driven by dissent over small stuff, by debate of short-term policy minutiae, and by decisions to confer advantage in the next election instead cultivating the ambition of the next generation. Post COVID-19 we cannot tolerate a return to this superficial, spiteful and splenetic inertia in parliamentary affairs.

To leave this existential ‘come to you-know-who’ exercise to the theatre of Question Period and charade of parliamentary committees would be inadequate and irresponsible. A Royal Commission must be established with a clear, non-partisan, non-backside covering mandate: prepare Canada for the next, inevitable, global pandemic.

Its lines of inquiry should be simple and straightforward: What did we get right? Where, when and why did we go wrong? And how do we guarantee we will be 100 times better next time?

All orders of government along with leaders from business, labour, healthcare, academia, and NGOs should be invited – and if need be, compelled – to testify. As well, governments must open the proverbial kimono. Absent real and legitimate national security concerns, Access to/Freedom of Information obstacles for document production and 20-year prohibitions on revealing Cabinet memoranda, minutes and decisions must be lifted as a rule, not an exception.

An unwavering commitment to, and culture of, candor, brutal honesty and factual transparency must permeate this exercise. Yes, incomplete and conflicting data, policy missteps, program mistakes and audit/control problems will be unearthed. Such is the reality for any entity – public or private – facing a mammoth crisis. However, recriminations and blame must be eschewed as best as possible. This is about forward-looking policy choices, not rearview mirror partisan political payback.

Moreover, we will also learn how federal departments quickly assessed hundreds of regulations and relaxed those that could have suspended the flow of essential medicines and other medical goods. How provincial governments worked with the legal and accounting professions to ensure contracts could be virtually executed to support physical distancing. How cities relaxed noise and traffic by-laws to enable 7/24 grocery store deliveries or allow full-day on-street parking as we worked at home.

Countless commendable examples of regulatory speed and innovation will come to light. We should make as many of these changes permanent where practical.

Canadian businesses have responded in many ways from retooling factories to personal financing extensions. But they too must also be honest about where their business continuity plans lacked foresight and completeness to respond to this pandemic. As a consequence, they need to commit to on-shoring supply chains for vital materials and components where possible – or be regulated to do so – and build in product and raw material redundancies. In turn, industry must be clear where these new costs can be absorbed and when they will be passed through to us in terms of higher prices.

Bottom line: The result of this Royal Commission should include a series of recommendations for immediate action and ongoing implementation across all Canadian sectors – government, business, labour, NGOs etc. – to fully respond to the “How do we prepare for next time” question.

Since World War II, we’ve scattered scarce public dollars across too many programs, failed industrial subsidies, political pet projects and spurious tax credit schemes. The cumulative effect of this 75-year escapade in being all things to all people left the cupboard bare in terms national disease surveillance, adequate PPE and supplies for health professionals, leaving at least 1.5 million seniors in poverty or with an appalling lack dignity in their daily care, an economy hostage to global supply chains, and the laundry list goes on.

Let’s show courage and have this discussion, set out broad and inclusive parameters with a deliberate yet ambitious timeline, and resolve to see it through. In the end, we must embrace its recommendations with humility, and act upon them decisively so we can say to ourselves and future generations, never again. #InThisTogether

Walter Robinson is an experienced public affairs executive with in-depth knowledge of fiscal policy, parliament, the machinery of government, life sciences and over his career has held progressive leadership positions in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

Photo: Enrique Lopezgarre from Pixabay