Don’t let politicians blame all our health-care woes on the pandemic

OPINON: COVID-19 has absolutely overwhelmed the system. But there were existing fault lines — and the hard work won’t be over when the immediate crisis has passed
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 13, 2022
Even before the pandemic, the hospital system was vulnerable to any sudden influx of patients. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Earlier in the pandemic, a thought occurred to me. I think it was more than just “earlier” — it was outright early. Spring 2020, maybe? What occurred to me then, as I looked at responses at both the federal and provincial levels, was that a quirk of Canada’s current political environment was going to produce a lousy outcome. In a country where the federal government was composed of Liberals (a minority, but still), but most provinces were run by conservatives, we had a perfect scenario for accountability avoidance. Every conservative in the country, from premiers right on down to people who just generally, vaguely identify as right-of-centre, can avoid any accountability or introspection by saying, hey, don’t blame us — the prime minister dropped the ball. And Liberals, of course, whether partisans in the PMO or just bog-standard Canadian moderates, will do the same: Don’t look at Trudeau. It was those nasty conservatives who screwed it up!

This was a depressing realization at an already grim time, but nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. The truth is simple but bleak: the pandemic revealed that most Canadian jurisdictions — and most Canadian leaders — were lacking. There are honourable exceptions, but, overall, COVID-19 found Canadian leaders and institutions unprepared, slow to adapt, and prone to failure. The policy successes that have occurred throughout this long slog do not change the fundamental calculus here: COVID-19 overwhelmed us, and, in many ways, even two years in, we’re still trying to catch up.

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Anyway. That thought hasn’t become any more cheerful in the time since it first occurred to me. There will be commissions and inquiries and task forces across the land when this is over, as there were after SARS, but we could have a billion reports on the pandemic, and it wouldn’t matter a whit unless someone in authority were willing to read them, learn from them, and accept responsibility for what can be improved — for fixing what failed — within their own jurisdiction, even if the failures happened on their watch. 

That’s not impossible. We probably will, almost in spite of ourselves, make some improvements and get better. I would really like to believe that this shared experience, with tens of thousands of dead and all our lives disrupted, will force some change. But I’ve been a political writer longer than I’ve been a pandemic-experiencer, and I have to say, I’m not optimistic that we’ll change much. I think the ability to blame our political opponents is just too tempting here, and too easy, and will get only more tempting as the scope of the failure, and its costs, grow. 

This is likely going to be particularly true in the field of health-care reform (and recovery — the system is a mess and will take a long time to get back on its feet). Health care is a political football in this country already. It’s been so for so long that both the Liberals and conservatives (and the NDP, in a few provinces) all share in the blame. It’s very easy to imagine politicians of any kind preferring the high-profile tweaks they think they’ll benefit from, rather than the deep, painful, and expensive reforms that are likely needed.

So I just have one request of you, all of you. Don’t let them get away with it.

By “them,” I mean any politician, at any level. And by “get away with it,” I mean something very specific. Don’t let them use the pandemic as an excuse for the state of the health-care system. COVID-19 has absolutely savaged it, but it broke along existing fault lines. And the consequences of that, in terms of death and suffering, are simply a massive scaling up of problems we already had.

I should note here that I’m using “health-care system” very broadly. I don’t mean only the hospitals. The long-term-care system must be a part of this conversation as well. So must community care, and almost certainly elements of our public-health teams (laboratory testing and public communication being some very obvious areas ripe for improvement). This column is necessarily general; any of those elements is worth a series of articles on its own.

The important thing here, though, is to understand that we will be coping for years with the mess COVID-19 has made of thing , and the politicians managing the cleanup (who may or may not be the same ones who oversaw it) will have both motive and opportunity to pretend that COVID-19 was, all by itself, the problem, and that, when it goes away and the backlogs are finally cleared, we’re done the hard work. Mission accomplished! Back to normal! The costs of the pandemic, economic and human, will be minimized by those who want to treat the entire thing as a fluke — tragic and awful, certainly, but not really something with lessons that apply to them, once the pandemic is over.

I repeat: don’t let them get away with it.

The pandemic was a rare event. We all hope we’ve seen the last of anything like this in our lifetimes. But, again, the places where our system failed were predictable. We knew the long-term-care system was a mess before the dying began. We knew the hospital system was too small and vulnerable to any sudden influx of patients. We knew that insufficient resources in non-hospital sectors of the health-care system were causing backlogs that produced not just human suffering, but also congestion in the hospitals, when people showed up there and remained there for lack of any better options. And even before COVID, too many people were waiting too damn long for treatments that may not have been life-saving but would certainly be life-improving. Long wait times, hallway health care, huge wait-lists for mental-health care, a bed in an LTC home, or a community care nurse — these were all problems in 2019, and none of them was new. 

And they’re problems for which the blame is widespread. People will want to pretend otherwise. Politicians, in particular, with finite resources to spread around, will want to blame all that ails the system on the emergency that began almost two years ago. They’ll succeed if we let them, so don’t. Don’t let them get away with it. 

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