COVID-19 certainly exposed the foolhardiness of ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish” government decisions over the last 40 years.
The worldwide pandemic had been predicted, everyone in power knew it was coming with H1N1, Ebola and SARS being the prelude. But democratic governments, with the exception of Taiwan, remained focused on cost-cutting and neo-liberal values (privatization, low taxes and deregulation).
Efficiency continued to be the mantra of the free world and resiliency was seen as nothing more than a quaint and old-fashioned luxury.
Governments had bought lock, stock and barrel into operating like corporations—efficient, just-in-time, lean and mean.
So, with governments weakened and politicians pretending to be businessmen, COVID-19 had a free-for-all.
Canada, once a world-renowned vaccine developer and producer, had nothing when COVID hit. The Connaught Laboratories at the University of Toronto, established in 1917, had been instrumental in providing low-cost, highly effective vaccines for the Spanish pandemic, tuberculosis, polio, smallpox and measles. Connaught was a net financial contributor to the University and provided low-cost vaccines to Canadians, American, Brits and poor nations.
Then the Chretien Government embraced neoliberalism, which was the beginning of the end for life-saving vaccine production in Canada. As provinces were squeezed financially, universities were squeezed provincially.
By 1970, the University of Toronto offloaded Connaught Laboratories to a federal Crown Corporation. Within a decade, Big Pharma and the neo-liberal crowd had got its claws into Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and it was sold to the private sector. That was the end of life-saving vaccine production in Canada.
Because of these short-term decisions, we have unnecessarily killed over 25,000 Canadians, educationally disadvantaged hundreds of thousands of children and youth, and are paying a huge economic price.
Ironically, in 2016 the World Health Organization had strongly recommended increasing global pandemic preparation by US$45 billion per year, but the world didn’t act. As Mark Carney, former Governor of the Banks of Canada and England, wrote in his book ‘Values’, “The costs of improving pandemic preparedness were both readily affordable and paltry when compared to the costs of the crisis.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t the reason why we have no vaccine production in Canada today, but he, and future prime ministers, are responsible to ensure we develop and retain capacity for the next pandemic. Ottawa’s investment in production facilities isn’t enough.
We need to reinvest in universities and recognize their importance to basic research and the valuable links they provide to private sector innovators. Public facilities consistently invest more in research and development (R&D) than the private sector.
The efficiencies of the private sector are mass production and mass marketing. Making money on drugs is not the same as making drugs and vaccines that prepare for worst case scenarios of the future.
Conservative MP, Michelle Rempel Garner, said, “This gross incompetence (no domestic vaccine production), is going to cost Canadians their lives and their jobs.”
She’s right, but her blame is misplaced. All political parties and voters over the last 40 years, including her, are to blame.
We voters went along with successive governments who were divesting our strategic national assets and forgoing resiliency in favour of blind reliance on the markets.
We would be wise to never forget that governments and corporations serve important, but distinctly different roles—the former protects the health and safety of its citizens, the latter provides ‘just-in-time’ stuff to consume and enjoy.
If Canada is to become resilient and prepared for the next (already-predicted) pandemic, our governments must stop acting as market-focused corporations.
The steep price we are now paying and the huge debt obligations of the future will hopefully be a constant reminder of the foolishness of political short-termism.