Column like I see 'em - Canada is (at the) back!


By Eoin Devereux

Neepawa Banner & Press

Is anybody feeling all that confident about Canada’s procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines right about now? Because the updates we’re all hearing from the federal government regarding their arrival over the next little while is not building much confidence in me.

Last week, Major-General. Dany Fortin, the person leading vaccine logistics at the Public Health Agency, stated that Canada doesn’t know how many Moderna doses for COVID-19 will arrive in the weeks ahead. This is actually the second time Moderna has short dosed Canada, as Ottawa had previously indicated we’d receive 50,000 fewer doses of the promised vaccine two weeks ago.

This news comes shortly after Pfizer, maker of the other COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in Canada, scaled back its shipments. Canada received no new doses of the Pfizer during the week of Jan. 25 and the federal government told provinces to expect an 80 per cent reduction in doses for the weeks of Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. Those announcements are not confidence builders in the least.

Falling behind

The supply disruptions have derailed planned vaccinations and has Canada starting to fall behind other developed nations in the number of shots administered. According to data collected by the University of Oxford-based Our World in Data (Feb. 3 update), we’re ranked 24th globally on vaccines delivered per capita per 100 people. And that’s just out of a list of 49 countries with verified distribution numbers.

Now, for anyone who would argue that those results aren’t so bad and that there are countries doing worse than us, that’s kinda like saying that while we failed the exam, others in the class did much worse, so that makes our failure okay.

The vaccine welfare line

Worse yet, Canada is a member of the Group of Seven (G7), which should mean that we are a global leader, a shining example to other nations on how to prepare for and then tackle this crisis the right way. But unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite. Canada is the only G7 country to take vaccines from the COVAX fund, a global initiative created to guarantee developing countries have  fair and equitable access to vaccines.

The federal government bought into COVAX for $440 million back in September. The deal secures doses for Canadians, with the other half set aside to help buy doses for the 92 countries who need help. Five of the six other G7 nations agreed to similar contracts, but Canada is the only one that’s needed to use it.

Now, what we’re doing with COVAX isn’t illegal in regard to the terms of the deal, but it’s not helping our global standing. The BBC, the Washington Post and other prominent international media outlets have headlines that are not painting Canada in the most positive light for cutting ahead in the vaccine welfare line. This is an initiative for nations that don’t have the means or the clout to do the job themselves. Nations like Ethiopia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone and…Canada, apparently.

Enough blame to go around

It would be easy enough to pin these failures solely on Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government’s seemingly late-to-the-game approach to acquiring COVID-19 vaccines. But, this does go beyond them. After all, there was a time when Canada had significant vaccine manufacturing capacity. Connaught Labs, based out of Toronto, was a leader in global research and development throughout most of the 20th century...right up until it was privatized by Brian Mulroney back in 1986. Years later, Stephen Harper would follow that up with cuts to research and development funding, which resulted in more domestic capacity being lost. We do have some capacity in companies like Providence Therapeutics, out of Ontario, but it’s been underfunded and ignored for far too long.

While the Conservatives do deserve some flack for past decisions that have now come back to bite us, the Liberals must accept the lion’s share of the criticism and learn from it.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously expressed back in 2015 that “Canada is back!”, I didn’t think he meant “back of the line”, when it comes to global esteem and credibility. Trudeau must recognize that this pandemic has exposed some real institutional problems that must be addressed.  But above all, he to needs restore some confidence in the average Canadian that the government can actually deliver on a shot in every arm.