, 12.26.2020 11:37 AM

“We are not prepared” – Globe investigation shows Trudeau government gutted our pandemic preparedness

This investigation by the Globe‘s Grant Robertson is shocking. It shows that Canada’s federal government consciously destroyed our pandemic-alert system.

Do they have blood on their hands? Read these excerpts, or the whole story, and decide for yourself.

More than 10,000 Canadians have been killed in this pandemic. How many of those deaths could have been avoided?

Ottawa’s ability to independently know what was going on in China – on the ground and inside hospitals – had been greatly diminished in recent years.

Canada once operated a robust pandemic early warning system and employed a public-health doctor based in China who could report back on emerging problems. But it had largely abandoned those international strategies over the past five years, and was no longer as plugged-in.

By late February, Ottawa seemed to be taking the official reports from China at their word, stating often in its own internal risk assessments that the threat to Canada remained low. But inside the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), rank-and-file doctors and epidemiologists were growing increasingly alarmed at how the department and the government were responding.

“The team was outraged,” one public-health scientist told a colleague in early April, in an internal e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail…

…the Public Health Agency, which was created after the 2003 SARS crisis to bolster the country against emerging disease threats, had been stripped of much of its capacity to gather outbreak intelligence and provide advance warning by the time the pandemic hit.

The Global Public Health Intelligence Network, an early warning system known as GPHIN that was once considered a cornerstone of Canada’s preparedness strategy, had been scaled back over the past several years, with resources shifted into projects that didn’t involve outbreak surveillance.

However, a series of documents obtained by The Globe during the past four months, from inside the department and through numerous Access to Information requests, show the problems that weakened Canada’s pandemic readiness run deeper than originally thought. Pleas from the international health community for Canada to take outbreak detection and surveillance much more seriously were ignored by mid-level managers inside the department. A new federal pandemic preparedness plan – key to gauging the country’s readiness for an emergency – was never fully tested. And on the global stage, the agency stopped sending experts to international meetings on pandemic preparedness, instead choosing senior civil servants with little or no public-health background to represent Canada at high-level talks, The Globe found.

…Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he is unsure what role added intelligence could have played in the government’s pandemic response, though he regrets not bolstering Canada’s critical supplies of personal protective equipment sooner. But providing the intelligence to make those decisions early is exactly what GPHIN was created to do – and did in previous outbreaks.

…Concerns about Canada’s readiness for a pandemic weren’t limited to scientists inside the Public Health Agency.

Internal documents and e-mail correspondence obtained by The Globe show senior officials at the WHO had also been growing increasingly frustrated in recent years with the direction Ottawa was taking.

This included the government’s oversight of GPHIN, which the WHO had praised as a “foundation” of global outbreak response.

The [Trudeau government changes] changes alarmed the WHO.

Senior officials at the Geneva-based organization – including Philippe Barboza, a manager of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme – urged Canada not to let its home-grown pandemic warning system falter. The highly specialized unit wasn’t merely a benefit to Canada – it had grown to fill a critical international role, providing the WHO with one-fifth of its epidemiological intelligence. It was too important to be curtailed.

But those efforts failed. There had been numerous turnovers among senior management at Public Health over the years, and the people who understood the intrinsic value of the early warning system were no longer in charge.

On Nov. 2, 2018, Abla Mawudeku, an epidemiologist who helped build GPHIN into a system respected around the world, wrote an e-mail to a group of colleagues in the international pandemic surveillance community, informing them that the WHO’s bid to change Ottawa’s mind had fallen short.

“I would like to let you know that, sadly, we have not been successful in convincing management of the critical value and role of GPHIN within and outside of Canada, and the indispensable relationship with the WHO,” Ms. Mawudeku wrote in e-mails that were obtained by The Globe from a third-party source.

…The move stunned epidemiologists at the WHO. In e-mails obtained by The Globe, Dr. Barboza confided with colleagues that he was left speechless by the Canadian government’s decision, which not only affected Canada but much of the world, as well. Though others were attempting to create similar systems around the world, including government programs and for-profit enterprises, they weren’t nearly as robust.

…The GPHIN problem was a symptom of a bigger ailment inside the Public Health Agency – one where expertise took a back seat to policy, and scientists increasingly found themselves marginalized.

According to internal documents provided to The Globe in recent months, by the time the pandemic early warning system was curtailed last year, the Public Health Agency was already struggling with these concerns. The restructuring that began under the Harper government, bolstering management with senior civil servants who lacked training in public health, remained mostly unchanged under Trudeau, and the problems went unchecked.

…On Oct. 30, The Globe submitted a list of questions to the Public Health Agency. The questions included why Canada is an outlier on the committee; why the agency doesn’t send a subject-matter expert to serve on a high-level group such as GOARN; and why Ms. Gooding is listed on the website as a doctor when she is not. Neither the department nor Ms. Gooding responded, despite several reassurances from a government spokesperson that answers would be provided.

However, in early November – roughly a week after the questions were submitted by The Globe – her curriculum vitae on the GOARN website was updated.

She is no longer listed as a doctor.

22 Comments

  1. Jocelyne Sirois says:

    Not surprised! Financial cutbacks have been going on in Health, Education and Social Services since Free Trade, globalization etc. Neoliberalism; profit at any cost, the Market rules. This system good for the 1%, awful for mankind.
    The present capitalist system must be changed.
    By the way, I am a 73 year old graduate from McGill School of Nursing. Have witnessed the degradation of Health Care in Canada since Nafta.

    • Andrew says:

      What cutbacks? Amounts transferred under the CHT have been going up year after year: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/programs/federal-transfers/history-health-social-transfers.html.

      What does this have to with the 1%? Do the 1% stand at the front of the line to get vaccinated first?

      On the contrary, the system is good for the bottom 10%. They contribute almost nothing by tax dollars to the health care system and get equal access.

      • Pedant says:

        Agree with your comment. It’s actually something on the order of 40% of Canadian adults who pay virtually no net taxes when you take into account freebies like the Child Care Benefit (which Trudeau maliciously means-tested so that hardworking middle class parents have to pay for it but can no longer access it for their own kids).

        The NDP even wants to force free dental care for the non-contributing 40%. Again the middle class will be shut out of this latest freebie (ditto pharmacare) while being compelled to pay for it.

        • The Doctor says:

          I had to go into a hospital a couple of weeks ago, right in the middle of the covid crisis, for an emergency unrelated to covid. I got great care, all things considered. The staff were uniformly attentive, courteous and professional. The only thing I had to pay for was my parking. How can you reasonably complain about that, as a citizen and taxpayer?

          Of course our system is not perfect and has its flaws. But how about some perspective FFS.

          • Pedant says:

            I don’t see what that has to do with my comment.

            The middle class is being taxed to death to pay for these benefits, while being denied access to some of them because they are too “rich” (right, as if a $100K salary in Vancouver is rich!).

            You, as a physician, are not middle class and physician salaries in Canada are some of the highest in the Western world (and unlike in the States, you face zero malpractice risk). You can also incorporate thereby drastically reducing your tax burden. So it doesn’t surprise me that you’re not able to see it from my perspective.

          • The Doctor says:

            P, my comment was in response to the initial comment, not yours.

          • Doc,

            Glad to see that you are on the mend!

            Cheers.

        • The Doctor says:

          And I’m not a physician.

        • Gord says:

          The government could at least start by being consistent in how it treats families for tax purposes. We’re a single-income family. We have three children under age 3, and any income my spouse would earn would be essentially eaten up by child care costs, so we made the decision that I would work full-time (being the higher earner) and my spouse would be a full-time caregiver for our kids.

          When it comes to doling out the benefits that I pay into through my tax dollars (like CCB), the government looks at our ‘family income’ – i.e. my spouse and I are treated as a household unit – and claws back our CCB accordingly. But when it comes time to paying taxes, suddenly we’re separate individuals, so I get dinged with a much higher marginal tax rate because I’m supposedly “high-income”, never mind that I’m the only one in our family earning an income.

          Either treat us as a single household and allow us to file taxes jointly (like the US), or give us our full benefit entitlement based on the fact that one spouse earns no income, but right now we get it coming and going from the government.

          To add insult to injury, Trudeau is busy coming up with more ways to squeeze a few more nickels out of the middle class while looking the other way at dodgy tax shelters and other schemes cooked up for the rich by their accountants, and simultaneously figuring out more ways to throw more money at the people who don’t contribute a cent in taxes. What a country.

  2. faithless elector says:

    Non of this is surprising. Emergency / Disaster Management has been a joke in Canada for about 20 years. Its just a bunch of wise talking consultants with dubious credentials who fool politicians by dropping silly buzzwords at conferences. No one takes any of the planning seriously, because everyone knows its just a way for people to make money. What’s the first step in every so called “Disaster Management Plan”? Find the plans and light them on fire. Someone should do an FOI on all the money wasted on plans that are never used, created by people who are totally incompetent, approved by people who are afraid to ask questions. The dollar amount is probably mind blowing.

  3. Ken Newman says:

    Once again Trudeau is showing his incompetence. Do you think this will make a difference? Do you think the Eastern Canadian voters will not embrace him again, such as they did a year ago? Was there not enough crooked events in the Trudeau government to give him a punt last year??

    Truly pathetic

    • Douglas W says:

      It’s not about Eastern Canadian voters.

      57 ridings in the GTA. In the last election, Libs took 49 seats there.

      If you want to stop Justin, this is where you start.
      Do the Conservatives have a GTA strategy?
      Probably not.

      • RKJ says:

        Douglas, I expect you are correct. So far, it appears Erin O’Toole is trying to walk the fence with his own party, giving those like Brad Trost and Derek “nutbar” Sloan a place. An election will show where and how he intends to control his own caucus. If he tries to play both ends off against the middle with his own party, he’ll likely lose – to Canada’s great detriment.

        Ironically, the “905” will vote Conservative. However, the messages and issues that matter in the “905” will be different from the issues that matter to those like Brad Trost etc.

        • Douglas W says:

          Conservatives need a “big idea” for the GTA.

          Lower taxes and tough-on-crime messages do not translate into meaningful seats in this area.

        • RKJ,

          I supported MacKay but frankly, none of the politicos or hard-core junkies really bought TheTrueBlueRoutine. Only the most gullible fell for that act. In short, both O’Toole and MacKay are basically cut from the same semi-progressive cloth. To suggest otherwise is to be, at the very least, politically disingenuous.

          But as DeLorey might say: It Worked!

          • RKJ says:

            Ronald,

            I supported McKay as well. Regardless, this will all be moot if the Conservatives can’t take a meaningful number of seats in the 905. Justin and his bunch can play away, as noted in Warren’s thread above, and still win. I get how candidates will play the game in order to win the party leadership, but if in the process one wears an anchor, you’ll still lose the most important contest.

      • Pedant says:

        Atlantic Canada being grossly overrepresented (per population) in the House of Commons and delivering 90-100% of its seats to the Liberals on autopilot doesn’t help.

        Quebec is guaranteed 25% of seats even though it no longer has 25% of the population.

        On the flip side, Alberta is the most UNDERrepresented province in the country on a population to MP ratio, with Ontario coming a close second.

        The electoral map is rigged in favour of the Liberals.

        • Pedant,

          All the more reason for the CPC to stick to centre-right, you know, the way Harper did up UNTIL he got his precious majority, then surprise, surprise, it was all down hill from there. Go figure.

  4. Sean says:

    Trudeau is more infatuated with being a pioneer re global governance than demonstrating competency as a leader for the governing party and the well being of Canadians. He is emotionally divorced from what’s important to the citizenry and spends more time trying to cover his backside after it’s been exposed in yet another scandal.

  5. gerald gromnisky says:

    It was a pathetic move to gut GPHIN into extinction when Canada was making such a major contribution to the ENTIRE international community by supplying one fifth of all epidemiological intelligence to WHO.
    It almost appears J.T. made a conscious decision that
    redirecting Canadian tax dollars to writing cheques to poor nations would more readily garner him a UN posting

  6. duojet says:

    IMHO, this is not a JT (or Harper) issue.

    It’s a broader trend. Same thing happened at Boeing with the 737-MAX.

    MBA types get put into senior management roles, managing things they don’t understand, to contain costs / meet deadlines / etc. The experts get shoved aside.

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