According to a CBC report, briefing documents for federal ministers, prepared by bureaucrats, reveal how rapidly the COVID-19 pandemic unraveled within Canada, with public health officials relaying low risk of spread within the country up until the early days of March. A shut down of Canada’s economy and self-isolation was recommended only two weeks after these statements of “low risk” were offered to the public.
Just last week on April 9th, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau warned that Canadians could have to wait for as long as one year before life as they knew it would return back to “normal”; a drastic change in messaging, as officials from Public Health of Canada were stating a mere two months prior to this that the risks around COVID-19 were low across the nation – as well as stating that mandatory self-isolation for those travelers returning to Canada would be far too hard to regulate.
As per the CBC report, a briefing note prepared on March 10th of this year for Health Minister Patty Hajdu prior to a question period stated that with 12 cases across the country (at that point in time), the “risk” around “spread” of the virus across Canada remained low. The note also revealed that the nation’s public health system was “well-equipped” to limit the spread and contain cases that do come from abroad.
About a month later now, there are approximately over 21,000 COVID-19 cases across Canada.
Documents reveal that in late January, the World Health Organization ( WHO) described the COVID-19 risk as “very high” when it came to China, and “high” as it relates to a global level.
Yet, documents that were prepared by a variety of departments within the Canadian government, and listed with Canada’s Commons Health committee last week, revealed the federal response to COVID-19 during the months of January and February. The information shows that while there was work done around detaining Canadians from various cruise ships and China’s Hubei province, not much was talked about as it relates to a pandemic. Public health officials questioned how accurate China’s Wuhan, Hubei media reports were around the suggestion of person-to-person spread when it came to the virus. The documents also show that the federal government was reluctant to police those who were coming from Hubei.
Back in January 30th, Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health stated during a call with counterparts across the provinces and territories that it was almost “impossible” to prevent the virus from coming to Canada, due the nature of travel around the world. She noted that limiting the impact and controlling spread once the virus is in Canada is what really counted, at that point in time.
A mere three days after this, the United States restricted travel into the country coming from China, to all non-citizens.
As of January 21st, there was information booths set up at all major airports across the Canada; however, it wasn’t until February 19th that personal information was collected from Hubei travellers (where public health officials could follow up on, if a virus outbreak occurred).
At that point in time, the government trusted individuals to self-report to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials if they were dealing with related symptoms to COVID-19; this long after Asian airports were using temperature monitoring measures on travelers, to help track the virus.
From January 22nd to February 18th of this year, 58,000 individuals came to Canada, travelling from China, with over 2,000 from Hubei. Only 68 of these people were further assessed via a quarantine officer and pulled aside, with only three travelers in total receiving a flagged medical exam. All others (65 in all) were sent along their way with a pamphlet.
As of early February, the Canadian government began advising Hubei travellers coming into the country to self-isolate, voluntarily, to avoid COVID-19 spread. With that said, a mid-February memo, sent by Hajdu, warned that Canadians may question these self-isolation recommendations; it also notes that there is no way to ensure or enforce compliance without the Quarantine Act in effect – something that would be invoked weeks later. The memo also states that public health officials didn’t have the volume needed to quarantine travellers coming from China, with 20,000 arriving in the country weekly, at that point in time.
As of February 24, Canada’s Public Health Agency withdrew any China travel references within their pamphlets, as it was clear that other countries globally, like Italy and Iran, were now dealing with COVID-19 community spread. Later that month, Hajdu conducted calls with provincial and territorial peers, which zeroed in on quarantine facilities in Belleville and Trenton for returning travelers from cruise ships and Hubei, yet not much was discussed around a response for COVID-19, if things escalated.
Even in early February, Health Canada expressed ongoing “attempts” to gain access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for a country-wide stockpile; however, deliveries were staggered at that point in time, due to increased market pressures around these items. The agency had sourced a “modest” number of protective masks; items that would be in dire need only one month later.
As late February hit, 78,000 COVID-19 cases were reported in China, and Canadian public health officials continued to counsel Hajdu, stating that the virus risk in Canada was still low.
One month later, there would be approximately 1,000 COVID cases in the province of Ontario, alone.
Which leaves us to Canada’s current situation with COVID-19. While it seems that social distancing and self-isolation seems to be keeping the country “below the curve”, many have still felt the effects of COVID-19 via the loss of loved ones. With the economy at a stand still, and a lot of Canadians left without a job (and business) during this time, the true effects the virus has on Canada, and the government’s slow response to the pandemic, might be felt for a very long time.