Two months after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, commissions of inquiry had already been formed in Washington, D.C. and London. Testimony from a succession of witnesses, experts and survivors fuelled a determination to ensure that the failures which took 1,500 lives would never happen again.
Two years ago, I proposed Canada launch a royal commission to examine the lessons from the pandemic, and especially its impact on the most vulnerable. More than 53,000 Canadians lost their lives to COVID-19. That’s like 35 Titanics. Yet still no inquiry has been announced.
Lightly dust the surface of the pandemic’s devastation and you will quickly discover the fingerprints of income disparity and social inequality.
Communities marginalized by socio-economic status bore a greater burden of infection and death from the virus. Long-known divergences in health-care access and outcomes for racialized populations, frequently rooted in discrimination, were allowed to grow wider with predictably dire results. A succession of reports and warnings about the vulnerability of residents in long-term care also went unheeded. Elderly LTC residents accounted for 81 per cent of all reported COVID-19 deaths in Canada, compared with an average of 38 per cent in other OECD countries.
Canadians struggling with income insecurity, if not outright poverty, were brutally attacked by the pandemic. Yet the moral imperative of creating a liveable floor of support in the form of a guaranteed annual income has been on and off the public agenda since the 1970s.
Canada needs to know why well-trodden knowledge paths about these and other high-risk groups did not galvanize governments into faster action to achieve better outcomes.
COVID-19 provided optics that also brought other long-known indicia of social injustice into sharp focus. There was a chronic failure to deliver adequate mental-health support during and after the lockdowns — an alarming gap in basic health care that continues today. Women trapped in abusive relationships were left in even more peril because of forced isolation. Femicides in Canada soared in the first six months of the pandemic.
People who were homeless were five times more likely to die from the virus than the rest of the population. Indigenous communities were disproportionately affected, with fissures in housing, employment, health-care access and mental health services becoming even more pronounced. Opioid-related fatalities followed in tandem with the pandemic’s deadly march.
What cannot be forgotten is that public confidence in the health-care system took a big hit during this time. Many Canadians faced life-shortening delays in surgeries and needed procedures. Loved ones were left to die alone because family members were not permitted to be with them. Well-established practices that recognize the value of family caregivers in contributing to better patient outcomes were thrown out the door by hospitals and long-term care facilities. Health-care workers faced war-like conditions involving stress, burnout and PTSD symptoms that will last for years.
We need a road map to rebuild trust in our health-care system. That won’t happen as long as those who should be leading the rebuilding have their heads firmly stuck in the sands of inconvenient truths and self-serving denial.
I am more persuaded today about the urgency of a national inquiry than when I began my call two years ago. Why? Because even though pandemic lessons abound, there are troubling signs that the federal government – the biggest actor in this long national drama – didn’t get the memo.
COVID-19 has shown that a virus can present an existential threat capable of turning the world upside down overnight. It remains an intractable intruder in our lives, with new XBB subvariants predicted to circulate this fall. That’s on top of the risks Canadians will face from RSV and seasonal flu. The whole pandemic debate about vaccines and who should get them, and the likelihood of confusion over often garbled and inconsistent public health messaging, is about to have an encore. A government that does not learn from the past to better prepare for the future is a government that is playing Russian roulette with the lives of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable.
It would be an inexcusable breach of public trust not to build on the lessons of this period. Top among those lessons is the pressing task of retooling Canada’s compassion infrastructure to ensure the most vulnerable have a future worth living, and the socio-economic divides that have become the pandemic’s shameful signature are dismantled.
When COVID-19 hit, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Now, after a staggering death toll and an unprecedented upheaval in the lives of all Canadians, it is unacceptable that Ottawa does not want to know what we’ve learned.
Kathleen Finlay is founder of the Compassion Innovation Lab and CEO of the Center for Patient Protection.
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