The auditor common’s conclusion this week that the Public Health Agency of Canada “was not adequately prepared to respond to a pandemic” is disappointing. It’s additionally not completely shocking — being inadequately ready for a once-in-a-century pandemic is a failure that clearly was not distinctive to the Public Health Agency, or to Canada.
“The experience of COVID‑19 has provided a lived experience of a global pandemic, the nature of which Canada has not seen in over 100 years,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wrote in its response to the auditor common.
The problem now is not simply to make sure our establishments are braced for the following pandemic. It’s additionally to consider how governments and societies can put together for all the opposite once-in-a-century catastrophes that may occur.
“Reports like [the auditor general’s] will be written multiple times in country after country after country,” mentioned Dan Gardner, a fellow on the University of Ottawa and creator of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, in an interview this week.
“This is not unique to Canada. This is our species. This is how we roll.”
All the problems recognized by the auditor common are worthy of consideration. The system for managing knowledge was insufficient. A danger evaluation device didn’t correctly seize the likelihood of a future risk. And PHAC had “not contemplated or planned for mandatory quarantine on a nationwide scale.”
The auditor common’s report suggests officers tried to deal with shortcomings as issues emerged — and it could be onerous to quantify precisely how the general pandemic expertise in Canada was affected by anyone downside. But the AG shouldn’t be the primary individual to say this nation was not completely prepared for COVID-19.
“There were really concerning reports from far away and we started to take measures. But, as we look back, there’s [a] lot of things that we probably would’ve wanted to do sooner in terms of preparing,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised the CBC’s Rosemary Barton in December.
“I think the next time any leader sees reports of a possible flu-like virus coming out of some corner of the world, make sure we have the right stockpiles of [personal protective equipment] and start ordering more … There was a scramble there that I wouldn’t want to repeat.”
‘No one actually cares … till the catastrophe occurs’
As Trudeau famous, Canada was hardly alone in scrambling for PPE as nations realized they did not have sufficient readily available and provide chains had been fragile or inadequate. But if governments had correctly thought via what may occur within the occasion of a worldwide pandemic — the likes of which the world has not seen because the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 — they could have seen the issue coming.
“If you speak to anybody who deals with disaster management — which is foreseeing risks, mitigating the risks, dealing with them afterward — they will tell you it is almost a cliche in that field that you are starved for resources and no one really cares about your work until the disaster happens,” Gardner mentioned. “At which point you [are] deluged with money — so much money that you don’t know how to use it.
“Then regularly, as time passes, you slowly evolve again to the earlier place wherein no person cares about your work and also you’re starved for assets. I name that the complacency-to-panic cycle.”
The probability blind spot
The basic problem, Gardner said, can be traced to human psychology. People tend to struggle with probability and long-term thinking. A global pandemic is an improbable event at any given moment in time; it’s only over the long term that such threats can be expected to manifest themselves.
“In different phrases, it is a mixture of our two blind spots,” Gardner said.
Gardner put it this way in a piece he wrote last year: if you’re told that there is a one per cent chance of something bad happening this year, you will discount the risk. But if that one per cent chance is constant from one year to the next, the “extremely unbelievable” becomes “inevitable.”
Gardner also points to the “availability heuristic” and the idea that people will judge how common something is by how easily they can recall an example of something similar happening in the past.
People forget things — even the worst things
Anyone who was alive during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for instance, might consider it more likely that terrorists could hijack an airplane. But there are few people left on the planet with any memory of the Spanish Flu.
And vigilance always fades over time. “If one thing dangerous occurs to us, we out of the blue perk up and pay numerous consideration to that dangerous factor and we’re looking out for that dangerous factor,” Gardner said. “If the dangerous factor would not present itself for some time, we regularly overlook in regards to the dangerous factor and go on about our day.”
All that human psychology informs political and institutional attention. “There’s human psychology that’s making judgments about dangers. The psychology informs public notion of dangers. The public notion of dangers informs politics. And the politics determines the assets which are obtainable to arrange for dangers,” Gardner said.
Government officials are only human. But if we can identify these blind spots, and if we now see the consequences of failing to prepare for possible disasters, our preparations don’t have to be limited to the next killer virus.
“I’m not apprehensive in regards to the subsequent pandemic as a result of I’m actually fairly assured that our governments are going to be exquisitely delicate to that risk. And they will be that manner for years to return,” Gardner said.
“The dialog shouldn’t be, ‘How will we put together for the following pandemic’? The dialog must be, ‘How will we subsequent greatest put together for the following low-probability, high-consequence occasion that we’re not fascinated by?'”
No political value in preemptive problem-solving
In his new book Value(s), former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney touches on a similar idea. He observes that resilience and preparedness were undervalued before the pandemic — and politicians are rarely rewarded for preemptively solving problems.
The most obvious analogue of another global pandemic is climate change, although that can no longer be considered a “low likelihood” threat. Dealing with that threat means mitigating the risk — by reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and protecting ourselves against the “once-in-a-century” storms and fires that are already happening.
Gardner threw out another suggestion: solar storms and the so-called Carrington Event of 1859, which fried telegraph lines. A similar geomagnetic disturbance now could wreak havoc on the communications technology that runs the modern world.
Preparing for such threats inevitably comes with upfront costs and the aftermath of this pandemic may offer some interesting insights into how much we are willing to do — and for how long. Maintaining a constant and robust supply of PPE and increasing domestic vaccine manufacturing would require resources.
A new definition of national security
The cost of preparation might always be far less than the cost of failing to prepare. But if the next pandemic is years or decades away, how long might it take for future Canadians to cut back or ignore such precautions?
For the sake of sustaining such efforts, Gardner said he wonders whether preparations for the next disaster could be included within a general understanding of national security — something politicians of all stripes are generally willing to fund.
He acknowledged that you could get carried away in trying to imagine all the awful things that could happen. But within reason, thinking about risk and resilience could better prepare governments and societies for whatever might come.
“There are two methods to strategy it,” Gardner said. “Number one is, let’s have a dialog about these low-probability, high-consequence occasions that we’re not speaking about — whether or not there are cheap, cost-effective methods of mitigating these dangers.
“Number two is just generally — how can we make our systems less fragile? How can we build more resilience into the system so that if we are hit with whatever it is that we’re hit by, we can respond to it well?”