A critical care physician from Edmonton, Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, told CBC that Canada dropped the ball.
Chowdhury said the government took too long to realize how significant the issue was and took too long to call out the severity of the problem.
"I always feel like we're behind the curve," he said in an interview.
Chowdhury concedes that hindsight is 20-20 and it's easier to see mistakes in retrospect, but he points to a list of other countries — South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand — that have fared relatively well to show that other governments, with the same evidence in hand, were quicker to react and did so more decisively.
"Like everything when it comes to this pandemic, it's the people and leaders who moved early that made the difference," Chowdhury said.
In January, Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said there would be cases of COVID-19, but "it's going to be rare."
All through January and well into February, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and other federal ministers reassured Canadians that the risk of getting the coronavirus in Canada was low, even after the first few cases popped up in the country.
Considering how fast the virus was spreading throughout China and into Europe, that surprised many in the medical and scientific community who were watching.
"How fast can an epidemic spread? The answer used to be as fast as the fastest horse can run or the fastest boat can sail," Dr. Marcus Powlowski, a physician and Liberal MP who sits on the parliamentary health committee, said in an interview. "Now diseases spread as fast as the fastest plane can travel. That hasn't been emphasized enough."The government balked at closing our borders.
"The long-term implications of shutting down borders is they're not very effective at controlling disease. In fact, they're not very effective at all," Hajdu said on Feb.17.
Multiple studies have shown that borders don't stop viruses, but stricter controls can slow them down by days or even weeks. Since the goal was delaying the virus and buying time, Chowdhury said not restricting entry into Canada early on was one of the government's biggest missed opportunities.
A month after Hajdu's statement, Ottawa closed the border to all foreign nationals and to non-essential travel from the U.S. Chowdhury said that was weeks too late.A toothless effort to isolate/quarantine arrivals.
"People coming from high-risk regions need to be quarantined," said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at Harvard University and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
But it took until March 25 —14 days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic — for the government to do that, invoking the Quarantine Act, making it mandatory under the threat of fines up to $750,000 and even jail time.Tam's bad calls.
"Is it possible that an asymptomatic person could transmit the virus? Even if it is possible, we believe it is a rare event," Tam said at the parliamentary health committee at the end of January.
The first report of asymptomatic transmission — out of Germany — was at the end of January. Yet it wasn't until the end of March, that Tam acknowledged the growing body of evidence.
Even so, it didn't immediately change Tam's view on things like whether the general public should wear masks to slow the spread of the virus. Even at the end of March, she was insisting that it was not beneficial for an asymptomatic person to wear a mask.
Jha, of Harvard, said that was a misstep.
"We have known for at least a good month to six weeks that asymptomatic transmission is real and it happens," he said. "Even when you're just breathing or talking, you can be spreading the virus through droplets and that is what makes the case for masks much more compelling."
In early April, Tam said non-medical masks can help lower the risk of spreading the disease to others even if you don't feel ill.Missed opportunities, some that come with a terminal price.
Despite assurances in January that there was a healthy federal stockpile of equipment that could be used as a backup to any shortfalls by the provinces, Canada is now scrambling to produce millions of items as it competes in the global race for much-needed supplies.
Provinces are still struggling to test people for the virus in larger numbers and to obtain faster results. They are a long way off from being able to test asymptomatic people, and then isolate those who test positive, something Jha said will be key to easing restrictions and getting back to normal.
Of course, Canada is not alone in having missed opportunities.
"The world essentially diverged into two main strategies," said Jha, explaining that one strategy — the more successful one — was to do early and aggressive testing and isolation.
"Almost none of the Western democracies did that. They have really just all kind of bungled their way through this."It's become standard fare for politicians, taken by surprise by events, to absolve themselves by saying that "no one saw this coming," the adult version of "the dog ate my homework." Harper did it when Canada got rolled by the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Harper did it again when Calgary suffered successive "once in a century" floods just 8 years apart.
Justin Trudeau failed Canada and it's small comfort to realize we probably would have been worse off if Scheer's Tories were in power. And Trudeau actually looks pretty good compared to America's unhinged president. That, however, misses the point.
We need to recalibrate our priorities. We can't allow "the economy" to defeat the public interest. We must accept that it's not enough to declare an emergency and then revert to business as usual. You cannot declare a climate emergency one day and, less than 24 hours later, greenlight a massive new bitumen pipeline. When an emergency looms, that is your priority. Everything else is secondary.
To quote Churchill, "Sometimes it is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required." Right now we need leaders who understand that.