It has been two years since an invisible but formidable foe shook up our lives.
Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, we have all learned a great many things. We learned to bake bread, sew masks, use videoconferencing not only to get through our workday but also to maintain connections with friends and family.
We hope that we are now at the tail end of this crisis and that we will be able to live with this virus. But we want to do more than just live with the virus; we want to make sure we thrive into the future. And to do so, we need to reflect on the lessons learned from our pandemic experience and act on these learnings to make our society stronger and healthier for all.
At the most basic level, the pandemic has reminded us that simple hygiene practices are crucial to staying healthy. Washing or sanitizing hands frequently and staying home when sick are simple ways to keep oneself and one’s community healthy. We learned this in elementary school but forgot our lessons along the way and it has taken a deadly virus to remind us of the importance of basic hygiene.
Also essential to keeping a community healthy are adequately funded and resourced public health systems. Outside of global pandemics, public health systems do not get much public attention and do not make for glamorous funding announcements by politicians in the same way that promising money for ICU beds, operating rooms or new wings to hospitals do.
Despite many years of preparation since the SARS pandemic, Canada was woefully unprepared to scale up testing, tracing and isolating to prevent the spread of a virus so similar to its predecessor. Canada needs to invest in a more robust public health system with the workforce, equipment and surge capacity to scale up to meet the demands of the next public health emergency.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also taught us that when faced with a significant threat we need to act fast in the face of uncertainty and before all the information is available. Then, we have to be willing to change strategy as new events develop and more data becomes available.
Everyone from individuals to communities, scientists to business owners, and governments to not-for-profit organizations had to be flexible in their thinking and nimble on their feet when it came to making the changes required to deal with the ever-mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus.
And when our leaders make decisions, they need to bring the public along with consistent and transparent messaging. They need to provide reliable and timely information that explains their actions and the reasons for their actions. This applies equally to scientific and medical leaders as well as political leaders. Poor communication can lead to an erosion in public trust and a lack of support for key public health measures and social policies.
To reach communities, especially ones that are disadvantaged or marginalized, health and social service providers need to engage with existing leaders in these communities. Community leaders already have the trust of their people and an understanding of what they need and how best to deliver much needed services.
When leadership and assets within communities were supported and leveraged during the pandemic, for example in a number of First Nations communities, the results for improving vaccination rates or reducing case rates were remarkable.
During this pandemic, Canadians also learned the importance of self-reliance. At the beginning of the pandemic when countries were scrambling for masks, ventilators and vaccines, Canada had to get in line behind those with domestic manufacturing. Governments have to reinvest in Canadian production of essential goods and support medical research and vaccine development within our borders.
One cannot ignore the importance of daily conditions that people live, work and play in on their ability to stay healthy. Housing, income and work conditions are all social determinants of health that had a huge impact on the spread of COVID-19 infection during this pandemic.
The pandemic exposed deep inequities in our society when it came to access to resources for living. We need to urge our governments to make sure that proper housing, adequate income and safe work conditions are met for all Canadians. We live in a rich nation with sufficient resources for all to live comfortably and safely, now and in the next pandemic.
We also learned that our democracy can be threatened by those within our own borders and that we need to stand up and defend this cornerstone of our society. Our governments need to act swiftly and decisively to disarm any such threat, and as citizens, we must continue to strengthen our political rights and responsibilities through civic engagement and community action.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that we live in an interconnected world where one country cannot recover in isolation from the pandemic and expect to thrive.
Canadians have a responsibility to help low-income countries in their pandemic recovery by improving access to much-needed vaccines, health infrastructure and economic opportunities. After all, we are citizens of a global village.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit: www.engagedcitizen.ca.