August – Have we learned from COVID-19? Mostly No.

Written by Comms Team, September 5, 2023

Dr. Thomas Piggott is Medical Officer of Health and CEO of Peterborough Public Health, and an Assistant Professor at McMaster University.

Approaching the fall, with the new BA 2.86 variant arrived in Canada and approaching 4 years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one question should be front of mind for Canadians. Have we learned from the largest pandemic in over a century? The answer, like any answer to a complex question, is nuanced: yes and no.

The answer to this question really matters.

Not only for the ongoing response to COVID-19, which continues to impact the health of Canadians with a likely underreported over 2,100 deaths in 2023 so far and more having died through the whole pandemic than during World War 2.

It matters not only for future pandemic readiness – which we remain both better and worse prepared for. Better prepared for thanks to the leaps forward of science, including the advent of new vaccine technology and our understanding of the virus as one that transmits airborne and thus requires different interventions such as tight-fitting respirator masks and improvements to indoor air quality. But unfortunately, also worse prepared to respond to because of devalued collective action – gone are the days of banging pots and pans for frontline workers – and in its void has filled a deluge misinformation, in many cases propagated for political gain that will hamper future public health responses.

The answer also matters more broadly for our response to numerous other societal threats our country and planet face over the next decades. Wildfires, floods, and other emergencies in the ongoing climate crisis, the ill health effects of widening inequality, and the crisis of our strained healthcare system are all issues that necessitate the prevention thinking that public health brings and that we exercised through the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the answer to the question of learning, at least in Ontario, appears to be unfolding as a no. Last week the Provincial Government announced a funding freeze for public health for 3 years at a 1% increase, at least 2-3% below inflationary staffing cost increases, and the province has not announced a continuation of COVID funding into next year that provided a resource lifeline to public health units, who have been starved for resources for decades and were ill equipped to respond to the pandemic. At a time when investments in strengthening the public health sector makes sense – we are seeing the opposite.

The appetite to reflect and consolidate learnings from the pandemic is limited as leaders have hastened to move us on. While we faired better in Canada than our neighbours to the south – likely thanks to a functioning universal health care system and strong public health coordination – as the British Medical Journal summed up in July: The world expected more of Canada.

Beyond a lack of investments and desire, we are also left unprepared because we haven’t explored the nuance of the pandemic response in a critical way to collectively learn. The British Medical Journal called for an Independent National Inquiry in July.

Some have dismissed this as repetition of previous inquiries such as those following SARS in 2003; and we didn’t learn from those, so why would we learn now?

They are right to question this. But the implications of the response to a national pandemic were not as great then as now, with other immediate public health threats such as the climate emergency on the horizon. The context of the COVID-19 response has been quite different as well. The online propagation of misinformation, and political gain upon it, were not as present during SARS in 2003 and have had a greater influence on the response this time around.

I deeply hope we have the opportunity to learn collectively from the experience of COVID-19, and that we use those learnings to strengthen public health in Canada. Instead of piling on the pounds of cure to current crises, we desperately need to improve our ounce of prevention thinking. 

However, while we await that collective reflection and learning, please at least implement the individual learnings of the past four years as we head into the fall: stay home when sick and advocate for paid sick leave to afford to do so, test and get treatment if high-risk and eligible, get your vaccine booster when you’re due especially if higher risk as the protection may be life-saving, and think about the air you’re breathing – improvements to ventilation, air cleaners, more time outside and failing that as the risk increases tight fitting masks inside will help keep you healthy.

Dr. Thomas Piggott (he/him), MD PhD CCFP FRCPC
Medical Officer of Health and CEO