Here I come!
In the early 14th century, when I was young and we played games like hide-and-seek with physically present kids in real houses, this was the culminating line in the hands-over-eyes countdown.
In the early 21st century it still resonates, but we’re not playing anymore: The countdown is over and pestilence is upon us.
Here I come!
Governments everywhere scrambled to cope, understandably acting imperfectly on necessarily imperfect information. Guessing at which businesses to close, which activities to restrict, and for how long. Reversing emphatic directives while retaining the emphasis (Open the border! No, close the border! Never wear a mask! No, require a mask!). Jury-rigging massive support programs on short notice for businesses shut down by government and for people thrown out of work by the shutdowns. Panic-procuring medical supplies during a worldwide shortage. Spending a gazillion dollars.
I can understand and even forgive sloppy performance when someone is caught off guard. That’s usually how I perform when so caught, and maybe not just then. But here’s the thing: This pandemic was not a surprise.
Now, having disbanded our national pandemic-early-warning capability to focus seriously on the public-health scourge of vaping, it’s true that we didn’t have an extra few months of warning of this specific threat. But we’ve had warnings from epidemiologists for several decades about the inevitability of this moment. (If only they hadn’t cried “Wolf!” so often, eh? We for sure would have done better.)
Anyway, given that oft-touted inevitability, what did we put in place?
Did we put in place provincial/territorial rotating stores of personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure a sufficient inventory of current stock in case of extraordinary demands? Contracts with existing domestic suppliers to maintain a domestic production capability? Contingent contracts with additional potential domestic suppliers negotiated and refreshed every year, ready to be invoked when needed?
Did we put in place a database of industrial capabilities that could be redirected to ventilator, PPE, and sanitizer manufacture? A plan for finding such capability quickly when the need arose? A process for thinking about what other capability redirections might be useful?
Did we put in place a logistics plan for converting hotel space into interim hospital space? A procurement plan to acquire the necessary medical equipment? National partnerships with large hotel chains interested in participating as part of their business/marketing model; local partnerships with family-owned hotels? A plan to commandeer space if push came to shove?
Did we put in place an immediate (and huge) investment in long-term-care homes to enhance infection control? (Or to enable it for the first time, if we really must hit the ball from where it lies?) Failing that, new labour rules and compensation standards to prevent staff moving from home to home to home in search of a living? Failing that, an emergency staffing plan for long-term-care homes, supplemented with emergency accommodation to mimic a remote-camp staffing model (2 weeks in, 1 week out) to restrict virus transmission?
Did we put in place a plan for establishing temporary field hospitals to handle patient surges? Specifications for said installations? A database of current suppliers of hard-shell tents and trailer-style accommodations and modular housing across the land?
Did we put in place a medical-reserve capability, like the military reserves? Regular folks with other jobs who would be trained in personal-support work, basic nursing duties, and the proper use of PPE; or trained to assist lab technicians and technologists; or trained in public-health administrative work like contact tracing, data entry, and data analysis? Regular folks practiced at working as disciplined response squads with effective leadership?
Did we put in place a logistics-reserve capability? Regular folks with day jobs in transportation, procurement, scheduling, and project management? Identification of potential pandemic uses for logistics and the development and testing of plans to support same?
Did we put in place thoughtful plans for income-support programs in case, I don’t know, great whacks of the healthy population can’t work because one or more governments forbade their employer to operate? Plans designed carefully in slow time to consider tricky issues (like the desirability and feasibility of means testing, and the potential for inadvertently creating unintended disincentives to work)? Supporting systems (management, software) so the programs could be launched with little incremental effort when needed?
Did we put in place programs for citizen engagement developed with community groups? Mechanisms to organize healthy people to safely support childcare, seniors, and single-parent families under various virus-transmission scenarios? Communication plans for engaging potentially vulnerable people in their homes to sew masks or to lead small groups of children in online learning activities or whatever else turns out to be useful this time?
Did we put in place joint industry/government associations focused on building pandemic preparedness? Smart, diverse folks working together to identify challenges not yet thought-of and other opportunities and efficiencies?
Did we put in place a pandemic data-gathering and communication model? Software tools created in slow time, based on thorough thought about all the kinds of demographic and public-health information that we *might* need about sickies and how the heck to get it? Online dashboards for communicating said information to policy makers and to the public?
Did we put in place a pandemic-specific public-health management model? One capable of responding effectively to local conditions while maintaining the central command-and-control that might be necessary to implement new practices as new information comes available?
Did we put in place a pandemic-specific governance model? Structures to enable local, provincial/territorial, and federal agencies to work together effectively but also quickly? A roles and responsibilities analysis and a liaison plan? Principles based on reasoned discussion about what roles we want for unelected versus elected officials, to keep the former focused on their area of expertise and to prevent the latter from deflecting responsibility for difficult trade-offs and unpopular decisions?
Did we put in place annual or biennial pandemic-simulation exercises to test these plans and programs and practices? Refreshing the activities in the minds of those who will be responsible for executing them, and identifying and correcting weak spots? Public reporting on the results?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no and, um, no.
And here’s the other thing. Most of this would not have cost real money until the need came to launch. It wouldn’t have been free, of course — nothing is free — but pandemic plans, programs, and practices take more forethought than money. They take the political will to put effort into something that might not matter to your re-election this year or even to your party’s prospects this decade. They take a citizen attention-span longer than . . . Sorry, were you saying something?
Anyway, without forethought and the prudent actions it would have suggested, or even urged, we were in scramble mode.
But it’s OK, right? We got through it, right? Um, no. Lo, the second coming.
Here I come!
But it’s OK, right? We’ll get through it, right? Ready or not? Well, yes, although it’s looking to be uglier than it needed to be. And for sure this won’t be the last one. I just hope it’s the last one we have to scramble for.