We need to learn from our mistakes — now — for the next pandemic

OPINION: As we get closer to the end of COVID-19, the errors and blunders we spot will matter most for the future
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 17, 2021
Staff members register people outside a vaccination clinic in Toronto on June 1. (Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press)

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Before we get into the meat of today’s column, an observation. It’s related to the topic, but I think it’s worth making a distinct mention of it: we are likely now near enough to the end of this pandemic in North America that there will be a necessary tonal shift in news articles and columns of the kind that I’ve been writing and that you’ve been reading here and elsewhere since this pandemic began. We are moving out of a phase where it will be possible to apply the lessons we are learning, often at great expense and sacrifice, on the fly. Increasingly, every conclusion we reach, every lesson we learn, every painful but educational mistake we make, will be useful only for the next pandemic or other similar emergency. Unless there is some breakthrough variant of the virus that meaningfully defeats our array of available vaccines, this will be largely over here by the fall (and probably actually sooner than that). The lessons of summer will be for the future, not the present.

In fairness, that’s largely the story of Canada’s response to this whole challenge. We’ve been slow to acknowledge the danger, slow to learn the lessons, and slower to apply them. This is a major, major failure that will require equally major effort to address. But it’s a bit outside the scope of what I’m writing about today, so let’s leave it at that for now.

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On Monday, I told TVO.org readers about a frustrating experience I’d had on the weekend. I won’t recap it at length here, but I spent many hours in line for a vaccine (which I was eligible for) at a mass-vaccination site. I was let into the facility, registered ... and then sent home, unjabbed, because the clinic had either screwed up tracking how many doses it had started with or handed out too many tickets — there were 29 more people admitted to the facility than there were vaccines to give them. (That’s my count, by the way, and could be slightly off.) We were given pink tickets for future use at another clinic and sent on our way.

The happy update: the pink ticket worked. I got my second Pfizer dose on Monday at a Toronto clinic, thus sparing myself weeks of waiting and many hours of frustration with the provincial booking portal. Tuesday was basically a write-off, alas, as my primary side effect from the second dose was waves of absolutely crushing exhaustion. One minute I’d be doing errands, and the next, I would quite literally need to lie down. That thankfully passed by Wednesday, and I’m delighted, and grateful, to now be fully vaccinated. I want to stress how grateful I am — the clinic where I was vaccinated on Monday was run, near as I could tell, extremely efficiently and effectively. 

But I’m well aware that my happy experience is, at present, an anomaly. Just this morning, before I sat down to write this, I was watching local TV news in Toronto, and there were several reports of walk-in clinics with huge lines, where every ticket had been handed out within an hour of the line’s official opening (people are lining up even before that, of course). The aforementioned provincial system is still struggling to keep up with demand. This won’t be a problem forever — it will clear in a few weeks, as the initial surge is absorbed and supply keeps growing. But it’s a problem now.

And I dunno, maybe that could have been a column. I thought about making that a column. It seems to be that an accelerated but still restricted rollout could have eased a lot of the problems with the online booking portal. Why didn’t we keep dropping it by decadal cohort, but every three days instead of every week? On Monday, we threw it open to millions and millions of Ontarians all at once — almost 10 million, by my rough count. A more restricted but still accelerated release would have eased a lot of the problems with long waits and no available appointments. 

Or we could have done more to limit availability to within geographic regions; as Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, noted this week, appointments are not limited by home region, but supply allotments are determined by population. That seems like something that ought to have been fixed a long time ago — people will find ways to cheat that system, but even an effort would have helped, right? Right?

Who knows? This brings us back to the beginning of this column. There aren’t a lot of things that we’re going to have the time to learn from and fix before this all substantially wraps up sometime this summer. Up until now, I’ve been able to write most of my columns and articles during this pandemic in the likely futile but still technically possible hope that anything I said might matter. That we might meaningfully improve things by shining a light on a failure and showing ways to do better.

It’s probably too late now. The system is a bit of a chaotic mess, with long lines and huge demand all hitting the online system at once, but that will ease, and we’ll continue to see our second-dose rates soaring up. By the time anyone gets around to making any meaningful changes, we’ll be done, at least this phase. There’s still lots we still need to be focused on — a school reopening in the fall, a hospital system in urgent need of overhaul and expansion, a long-term-care system that was the scene of true horror. There’s still lots to say about all that in hopes of moving the needle. But the public-health side? God willing, this is almost over. 

That’s good! It’ll be wonderful to finally see the end of this nightmare. But as I said above, it’s going to mean a big tonal change for my kind of work. Until now, we’ve been writing for the present circumstances. From here on out, we’ll be increasingly writing for the future, in the hopes that next time, some of these mistakes can be avoided.

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