The reopening of the economy has started. The bosses are itching to make profits and not be outcompeted by capitalists in other countries that are reopening. All experts agree that mass testing and rigorous contact tracing are absolutely necessary as long as no vaccine for COVID-19 exists. Yet Canada lags far behind in these fields, which threatens to turn the reopening into a disaster.
Such was the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the beginning of the pandemic. “All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said back in March.
Despite this clear advice, Canada has not followed suit. “Until now we have been playing catch-up with the disease,” infectious diseases physician Isaac Bogoch and Business Council of Canada CEO Goldy Hyder said in Maclean’s.
We knew since the beginning of the pandemic that testing was key, but testing took weeks to really take off and is still completely insufficient.
In Canada as a whole, 1,323,447 tests have been done so far as of May 19. However, Harvard University research suggested 5 million tests a day in the U.S. as a condition for a safe reopening, which would translate to 600,000 in Canada. The target set by the government has been ten times less, at 60,000 per day.
But even this low target has not been reached, with only 26,000-28,000 daily tests on average. In Quebec, where Premier François Legault set a target of 14,000 daily tests, we are only at 9,000. Thus, when it comes to testing, all we’ve gotten so far from our governments are empty promises—and yet they are rushing to reopen.
There are not even enough test kits, or staff to perform tests and follow up with people working in the health-care system. In one damning example, a nurse from Montreal had to lie about her symptoms in order to get tested—and she did have coronavirus. One nurse from Montreal assigned to call people to give them their test results explained the mismanagement and consequences of the lack of staff, saying, “Today I had to prioritize calling workers with negative results! Next to me, there was a pile of positive test results from people still working, risking infecting others. I was discouraged.” This is because only doctors and nurse practitioners can inform people of a positive test result, and there were none present that day!
While testing is essential, a vital part of understanding the spread of the virus is what is called “contact tracing”, which involves tracking down individuals who may have come in contact with an infected person and gathering more information about these contacts. No serious attempt has been made in Canada to increase these operations. There are reports that contact tracing in the country can take up to 10 days and is still done using paper charts and fax machines—not exactly what we would call advanced technology.
Another method of contact tracing is the new digital platform about to be implemented in Quebec. It will rely on emails, and people will be asked to give the email address of people they have been in contact with in order to trace them. This method has been described by one expert as “very outdated and old-fashioned.” Plus, who knows the email address of the strangers they meet at the grocery store?
In Montreal, the most affected city in the country and one of the worst in the world in terms of daily death rates, the health department has the capacity for conducting 500 investigations per day. So far, the daily number of new cases has surpassed that number on nine occasions, and this is likely to go up if testing does increase. There is a vital need to train and hire more staff. But can this be expected of the Legault government, which imposed a hiring freeze in the public sector at the beginning of the pandemic?
The example of South Korea, where rates of testing and tracing have been quite high, is instructive. After the reopening of the economy, a young man tested positive after visiting several nightclubs in Seoul on May 1. Within days, the authorities were able to trace over 10,905 people present in the area that night, to test 7,272 and to detect 100 new cases. It shows what can be done. But this would not be possible in Canada with the current level of testing and tracing.
The Globe and Mail recently commented,
“No one has been forthcoming about the reasons why we’re still puttering along. Initially, it was blamed on lack of medical reagents, swabs and other supplies. Then it was a shortage of laboratory staff. More recently, it’s insufficient contact tracing staff and, in Ontario in particular, on bickering about priorities between provincial and regional public-health officials.”
Whatever the excuse, it is clear that testing and tracing has not been a priority. While governments keep announcing their desire to increase both, actions do not follow.
The reason is that the Trudeau government has prioritized throwing money at big business instead of massively investing in healthcare, production of testing material and hiring contact tracers. This is the same in the provinces. In Quebec, Legault has hardly spent any new money on anything at all so far to fight the virus.
“Chronic under-funding” of public health offices was cited by a U of T public-health professor as part of the problem. Another expert from the University of British Columbia recently said, “COVID-19 is the biggest thing this country has had since 1918 [the year of the Spanish flu pandemic]. And for strange reasons, the public health department, which is our main defence, doesn’t seem to be getting a big funding rescue package.”
While Trudeau was quick to hand $10 billion to big business back in March, the government has invested just $1,1 billion in research and testing over a month later. Anxious to help big business, the government has only crumbs to offer for public health.
All resources to the point of attack
The economy cannot and should not remain locked down forever. But the capitalists and their governments are cutting corners and rushing an unsafe reopening, which threatens hundreds of thousands of workers with getting sick and dying.
Take the recent common declaration of the premiers from April 28. In this declaration, they put forth a common set of principles on which to restart the economy. It states among the conditions that “sufficient public health capacity is in place to test, trace, isolate, and control the spread of the virus”.
But this “sufficient capacity” is deliberately unspecific. Thus, provinces can choose when they want to reopen, regardless of the lack of preparation in the form of testing and tracing. This is what is currently happening, and the results might prove disastrous. We saw recently in Germany that cases of COVID-19 infection tripled overnight with the reopening. How can we expect things to be any better here?
Workers do not want to be cannon fodder and be put at risk. A recent poll by Ipsos found that 72 per cent of Canadians agreed that Canada needs the ability and capacity to test widely for COVID-19 before society can be reopened. But these criteria are clearly not met yet.
Instead of the empty words of our politicians, we need immediate action. There is currently an army of unemployed people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. These people could be immediately trained to become contact tracers at wages comparable with public sector workers. There should be massive investment in healthcare and the workers should take over factories in order to massively produce tests and personal protective equipment. All university and private labs should also be taken over. We need all the resources available to increase testing and tracing.
The Harvard study mentioned previously says that ramping up testing and tracing in the U.S. would cost $50 to 300 billion over two years. The figure would be proportionally smaller for Canada’s population. But with $1 trillion of “dead money” currently sitting in the bank accounts of the capitalists, there is more than enough money for a massive increase in testing and tracing.
Expropriating the wealth of these capitalists, and establishing workers’ control over production of medical equipment and testing, is the only way to safely reopen the economy.