For someone so adept at kicking the legs out from under his political opponents, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprisingly didn’t spot a potentially catastrophic political crisis approaching in the rear-view mirror.
Last week, Canadians were exasperated after being told by federal public health officials and then Trudeau that the majority of them are not expected to be vaccinated against the deadly Covid-19 virus until September or even as late as December 2021. This is possibly months after people in other G7 countries that manufacture vaccines are expected to have access – places such as the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“The very first vaccines that roll off an assembly line in a given country are likely to be given to citizens of that particular country,” Trudeau said. “Countries like the United States, Germany and the UK do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities, which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first.”
But on Wednesday, the United Kingdom announced that 800,000 doses of the approved Pfizer vaccine are already on their way from Belgium and will start to be made available next week. The announcement once again highlights how Canada has dropped the ball in securing vaccines to help fight this deadly pandemic.
Of course, the timelines are complicated and Health Canada’s chief medical adviser says the country may not lag that far behind on vaccine approval, compared to those countries manufacturing the vaccine.
But after weeks of raising expectations that “when a vaccine will be ready Canada will be, too,” it is hard to imagine a bigger political blunder – especially with a potentially politically damaging split screen of Americans queuing to receive the Covid-19 vaccine while Canadians remain sequestered at home in the dead of winter under sweeping public health restrictions that have put strict limits on how many people can gather.
To put things in perspective, for months Canadians have looked on at the US in horror as the Trump administration fumbled the initial pandemic response to become the world’s number one hotspot. Until recently, we’d managed to keep our numbers relatively low. While the US has had over 4,000 cases per 100,000 people, Canada has had just over 1,000.
At the same time, we were being assured by a confident Prime Minister that we will soon see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” We’ve been led to believe we were lucky and well-positioned to emerge from the pandemic early.
Although Canada expects around 6 million vaccines by the end of the first quarter of 2021, they will quickly be consumed by “high priority groups” such as frontline health workers and the most vulnerable.
How did this delay happen?
The answer is that Trudeau tends to deliver far better on issues management than large legacy projects, such as facilitating the nation’s ability to produce its own advanced vaccines – like the Covid-19 mRNA type that requires special facilities that Canada doesn’t have yet.
An advanced plant-based vaccine is under development by Quebec-based Medicago but it is only entering stage two trials. Not only does Canada not have robust domestic production, it lagged behind in placing orders for some of the foreign-made vaccines (such as Pfizer). There were also delays in construction of an expanded vaccine manufacturing plant in Quebec – the deal was also disrupted due to a botched agreement with a Chinese firm when Chinese customs blocked exports of vaccine samples.
Having been in power five years, and with warnings loud and clear about a forthcoming pandemic from the World Health Organization (WHO) and health experts, Trudeau should have summoned the political will to jump start a revival of domestic vaccines production in order to reduce reliance on foreign suppliers.
But more immediately, Ottawa could have avoided accusations of political obfuscation by preparing Canadians far earlier for the possibility that mass vaccination will take place later than many G7 countries and far into 2021.
The prime minister has managed to shake off many previous scandals. Most recently, he did so with the WE Charity controversy this summer that involved the funneling of millions of dollars in student aid through a charity linked to his family.
Trudeau suspended Parliament for several weeks in August, shuttering committee probes into the scandal in the process. Trudeau, who faced his third ethics commission inquiry while as prime minister over the scandal, admitted he “made a mistake” by not excluding himself from cabinet discussions on the contract.
But less than halfway into the four-year mandate since he was re-elected in 2019, the confusing vaccine delay is an oversight many Canadians are unlikely to forgive – especially landing at a time when many are at the end of their tether and families are separated from elderly loved ones due to the need for physical distancing measures.
“When it comes to Trudeau’s broader base, the government has been forgiven for a lot of things. It has never been very good at operationalizing big projects. This may well be its most critical test,” Shachi Kurl, president of polling organization Angus Reid Institute, told me.
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After seeming to have crushed the Covid curve earlier this fall, public health experts warned Friday that if current trends continue, Canada could see a doubling of daily cases to 10,000 by mid-December.
Toronto, the country’s largest city, is in lockdown, and several other parts of the country are being forced to follow. The spike is being blamed mostly on community transmission: because of colder weather Canadians are spending more time indoors – and that promotes spread. In addition, a growing sense of pandemic fatigue, confusion about guidelines, outbreaks in long-term care homes and so-called super-spreader events (like weddings and funerals) are adding to caseloads.
In power since November 2015, Trudeau and his Liberal Party cannot explain away the lack of action on boosting domestic production capacity by arguing the pandemic caught them off-guard.
“We have said repeatedly the next pandemic is going to start, we just didn’t know where or how, but knew it would,” Dr. Syra Madad, a New York-based infectious disease epidemiologist who was featured in the Netflix series “Pandemic” – which predicted another global pandemic — told me.
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said Monday at the biweekly press briefing that no country should have been caught off guard by the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not as if nature wasn’t telling us to be careful, to watch out, to get ready,” he said, adding that many gaps and weaknesses have been exposed by this pandemic and that countries should have had plans in place for robust contact tracing, PPE supplies and to bring in more health workers.
Although Canada is improving its resilience, it lacked many things: a robust contract tracing network and PPE. We are now facing hospital oxygen shortages and a lack of health workers. And loopholes in travel restrictions allowed people who have been in the US or overseas to travel across the country rather than quarantine at their point of entry.
Trudeau’s ability to lead the country to the finish line of this deadly pandemic has been seriously compromised. He has managed to recover from other potentially career-ending scandals before, but the vaccine delay may be a bridge too far.