Pandemic perspectives four years later: wins, losses and lessons learned

Pandemic perspectives four years later: wins, losses and lessons learned

Dian Cohen

Local Journalism Initiative

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic on Jan. 30, 2020 and declared it no longer a public health emergency on May 5, 2023. Between the onset and now, more than 700 million people contracted the disease and 7 million people worldwide died. Canada’s experience was little different: almost 5 million contracted COVID-19 here and more than 50,000 died.

Canada, along with the other 193 member countries of the WHO have been meeting regularly to negotiate an international agreement to support pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response globally. The deadline for these negotiations is approaching – the “pandemic accord” is supposed to be delivered at the 77th World Health Assembly that begins today in Geneva and is in session for the entire week. It’s worth a look back to consider how we in Canada managed the worst pandemic in a century, how our economy and our daily lives have been impacted, what we’ve learned that will alleviate the damage of ‘the next time’.

Today, a quick overview since early 2020. Tomorrow, a look at what the pandemic has done to and for the economy; Wednesday, how our lifestyles and the way we socialize have been impacted; Thursday, wins and losses in the medical and scientific fields. Friday we’ll try to sum up lessons learned, where we are today, how we’re preparing for the next time and the longer-term implications of our actions.

*  *  *

When the “coronavirus” was declared a global pandemic at the end of January, 2020, Canada had already confirmed its first case. Discussions were both public and private – the government’s message was that the risk to Canadians was low, quarantining was not deemed necessary, it would be discriminatory to exclude travellers from China. By February, contradictory advice began to emerge: the Minister of Health Patty Hajdu recommended that citizens stockpile food and medication while the Health Canada website recommended against such bulk purchases. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada thought there was no need to wear a mask.

On March 9, 2020, two months after the declaration of a global pandemic, British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that a man living in the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver had become Canada’s first death. The elderly man had health problems prior to contracting COVID. The feds began to bulk up their bank accounts to deal with the outbreak – the precursor of Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act – multi-billions of emergency spending legislation for research to manage solutions, for the provinces and territories, and ultimately stimulus packages for everyone affected.

Two weeks after that, on March 20, the Canadian government closed the borders for all travelers except Canadian and American citizens and ordered Canadians to restrict their movements. Lockdowns became the order of the day. The border closure led to a million Canadians returning to Canada – masking was minimal and not officially recommended. There were no temperature checks at airports. Hand sanitizer dispensers had not been installed. There was no system in place to monitor 14-day self-isolation and not everyone knew they were supposed to do it.

Statistics Canada reported the country’s economy lost nearly two million jobs during the first full month of the lockdown, catapulting the unemployment rate to 13 per cent. The annual inflation rate turned negative as the economy came to a standstill. Stocks plummeted, yet Shopify became Canada’s most valuable company — its share price more than doubling as brick-and-mortar retailers were forced to close and consumers turned to online alternatives.

April was a cruel month for the feds to crack down on social distancing and quarantining. The RCMP had the power to enforce the Quarantine Act of 2005 (put in place after the SARs epidemic). Penalties for violations included fines of up to $750,000 and imprisonment for six months. By April it was also known that the vast majority of deaths in the country were connected with long-term care and seniors’ homes. By May, the death toll from COVID-19 passed 5,000 and the country’s overall caseload rose to 70,000. Flaws in the long-term care system were so egregious that more than 1,000 members of Canada’s military — including most of its medical personnel — were deployed to long-term care homes in Quebec and Ontario.

Although thousands of schools had been shut in February, by week 10, Quebec reopened elementary schools and daycares outside the Montreal area while Newfoundland and Labrador’s schools remained closed. Amid anti-lockdown protests, BC, Ontario and Saskatchewan took tentative steps to reopen their economies. By June, Ontario was back to emergency measures — bars and restaurants, except for takeout and delivery, would stay closed. Gatherings were limited to five people. New variants were emerging that rollercoaster-ed illness and deaths. Indeed, five distinct waves of between 100 and 200 days each were tracked from January 2020 to February 2022. The sixth wave, beginning March 2022 is ongoing – now more than 800 days, because reliable tracking on recoveries has stopped.

Canada’s response to the pandemic was less than stellar. The SARS outbreak in 2003 was the impetus for the creation in 2004 of the Public Health Agency of Canada and the appointment of a Chief Public Health Officer. That same year a Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness guide was published, purporting to outline how federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions should work together to ensure a coordinated and consistent health-sector approach to pandemic emergencies. According to the government’s website, the plan was tested with the advent of the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. There is no official evaluation of whether the plan worked as expected. Several other guidelines were created between 2013 and 2018. We now know that these guidelines were never updated, coordinated with the provinces or tested. The Auditor General said in 2021 that they were neither used nor useful during the COVID pandemic.

For the general public in 2020, it appeared that there was no plan in place. Aside from the financial support the government hastily legislated, public sentiment was that the people who were supposed to be in charge, weren’t. Past patience with public and private sector leaders who managed the country gave way to confusion and disillusionment as Canadians contemplated contradictory instructions, draconian lifestyle restrictions and the possibility of financial ruin.

The wait for clear direction and help or a cure seemed interminable. But the wait was less than a year and that was akin to a miracle. Thanks to an unprecedented level of global cooperation, on Dec. 9, 2020 Health Canada authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Canada started injecting COVID-19 vaccines on Dec. 14, 2020.

A surge of ills is being attributed to the pandemic. As social creatures, the pandemic’s disruption and isolation created problems from which we still have not recovered. Among the biggest costs has been learning loss. Students have begun to recover some of the pandemic losses from long school closures but have a long way to go. In addition to deaths from the virus, long COVID — which scientists still don’t understand — has afflicted many people.

On Oct. 1, 2022, the Government of Canada removed all COVID-19 border measures including proof of vaccination, testing, quarantine, isolation and use of the ArriveCAN app. By then, Canada’s federal COVID-19 spending totaled $359.7 billion, added $8.3 billion to present-day interest costs and is generally playing havoc with fiscal prudence. A global bond ratings agency has downgraded Canada’s credit rating from triple-A to double-A-plus.

On April 4, 2024, the government stopped reporting COVID-19 hospital use. Nationally, the number of people getting COVID-19 is decreasing and remains at low levels, although 31,000 tests were reported on that day.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the economy has been transformed.


Subscribe to read more stories

Share this article