When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last Fall that Canadians would have to wait until 2021 to see the COVID-19 vaccination campaign begin in the country, the PMO quickly realised they had a problem on their hands.
Federal officials believed the first doses of the vaccine would arrive in Canada between January and March. Reassurances that Canada had purchased tens of millions of doses of vaccines, pleas to be patient and explanations about not having domestic vaccine production capacity were not cutting it: “Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first,” said Trudeau in November.
“What really matters is when we get to cross the finish line. And the fact that the doctors highlighted that, if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have a majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September, puts us in very good stead,” added Trudeau.
Opposition parties, Premiers and pundits pounced on Justin Trudeau and his government: Not good enough. Canadians seemed to agree, especially considering how Liberals were boasting about the different agreements with big pharma companies to make sure Canada was at the front of the line.
The backlash sent the Liberal government scrambling to save face. Within two weeks, Trudeau announced a first shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Health Canada approved it and Canadians began receiving vaccinations on December 14th. It didn’t really matter that the initial shipment was only 30,000 doses. What mattered was that Canada was kicking off its mass-immunization campaign, with pictures of Canadians being jabbed flowing in the media.
Reality soon resurfaced in early January, as other countries seemed to have done a better job at securing vaccines for their citizens. This week, Canada’s supply is running dry, and local health authorities are announcing they have injected all available vaccines and have no timetable for their next shipments.
In fairness to the Trudeau government, to date, Canada is actually doing better than most countries in the world, when it came to vaccinating its population. Early in the new year, Canada was in the top 10. It remained in the top 15 until January 25th. At the time of writing, Canada had vaccinated 2.1% of its population and has fallen to 18th in the world.
Israël is in a class of its own, having vaccinated over 40% of its population, partly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a deal with Pfizer, obtaining priority access for his fellow citizens in exchange for their medical data. Other countries that are miles ahead of Canada include the United Arab Emirates (25.1%), Seychelles (18.7%) and Bahrain (8.5%). Fellow G7 members United Kingdom (10.1%) and United States (6.2%) used their buying power and access to domestic production to also do better than Canada.
The Trudeau government has made many mistakes in the course of this pandemic. They were also caught off-guard by other countries acting faster, better, with more money and more perseverance. Nethanyahu called the Pfizer CEO 17 times before Justin Trudeau found the time to get Dr. Albert Bourla on the line. Could it have made a difference? Probably.
The truth is, there is a worldwide supply problem. Some countries acted early, some countries paid more money, some countries made side-deals. But let’s be clear: that is all happening at the expense of poorer countries. According to Oxfam, countries representing 14% of the world’s population bought 53% of the vaccines.
As a possible solution, the World Trade Organization received a petition from ninety-nine members calling for intellectual property exemptions to waive rules regarding patents, in order to allow more equitable distribution and increased production of vaccines, at least until the World Health Organization declares the end of this pandemic. The idea has been rejected twice, Canada being one of the rich countries opposed to this exemption.
This pandemic has created a new type of nationalism, the vaccine nationalism. All politics are local and rich governments around the world are trying to win the vaccination race. This race is a reality check in the face of the “We are all in this together” sloganeering. Canada is (for now) ahead of 177 countries in the world. It might be mediocre for some, but I suspect that Burkina Faso, Haiti and Moldavia would quickly trade places with Canada.
Yet, there is a collective hysteria setting in that Canada is failing. “Canadians used to be a world leader! The best country in the world! Canada’s rollout is mediocre!” And so on and so forth. There is no question that the longer the rollout takes, the more Canadians will get sick, and the more will die. Yet despite the current delay, Canada is doing better than industrialized countries such as Germany, France, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland. China, India and Russia are far behind, too. Canada is doing better than all of continental Africa, all of South America, all of Oceania. But that is not good enough for Justin Trudeau. Because politically, the life of a Canadian is worth more than the life of anyone else.
Photo Credit: BBC
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