Editorial: What about the next health care threat?

The World Health Organization downgraded its stance on the COVID-19 pandemic on May 5, saying this pandemic no longer qualifies as a global health emergency. This is a largely symbolic move by WHO, which warns that the virus and its significant number of variants are still a threat. COVID-19 has become more manageable with fewer fatalities, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer having long-term negative health effects – if infected with the virus. The risk of a COVID-19 infection is still considered high: the pandemic is not over. Rather its effects are becoming normalized. COVID-19 is now endemic, the same way the Influenza pandemic changed to 100 years ago.

When the pandemic began, we did not know what COVID-19 was. After incredible scientific research, and in a relatively short time there were vaccines and effective treatments for COVID-19. It is amazing and worth lauding the accomplishments that have been made. However one thing that has seen little discussion or consideration is what about the next health care threat?

The uncertainty in March-May 2020 was based on the lack of personal protective equipment, medical equipment, and supplies. Emergency plans for containment and treatment of the unknown were sorely lacking. Following the SARS pandemic (2002-04), many governments put into place plans for dealing with further outbreaks and the need for containment of a virus which fell into disuse. Those plans were for naught when COVID-19 arrived. What is the plan for the next one?

Governments have poured funds into private enterprise to make N-95 masks or increase vaccine production. Building things is only part of a needed plan: what is the rest? Emergency preparedness plans are required to deal with potential floods or natural disasters – why not for dealing with a biological disaster?

There needs to be a provincial and federal emergency management plan developed to mitigate biological disasters like viruses. This plan should include stockpiles of PPE, research and vaccine equipment that can scale up research, development, and production of vaccines and medical treatment. It should also include prescribed legislation that allows for financial supports for those affected, and funding to support maintain stockpiles of PPE and other equipment so that when needed – people should not be trying to salvage expired items to make due. Appropriate legislation should also be in place to handle future lock downs and other civic measures to avoid the jury-rigged method to which all governments acted. Set legislation with clear guidelines and expectations, with full justification for how plans are put into effect would avoid many of the issues that occurred during this pandemic.

What is clear so far is there is no plan. Canada and Ontario managed its pandemic response this time around through an unfortunate and hap-hazzard method of panicked and confused knee-jerk responses, largely politically based first, with science often being a secondary consideration.

We do not know how long another biological emergency like COVID-19 will take to arrive here. When it does, we need to have plans in place to deal with whatever threat is there. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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