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2 years on, there are calls for a real look at what went wrong in Canada during COVID-19

As we hit the two-year mark since the official start of the pandemic, there are calls for wider inquiries or a commission into what went wrong during the COVID-19 efforts in Ontario and Canada.

Ontario's opposition parties want an inquiry, province keeps mum

Nurses attend to a patient in the intensive-care unit of Humber River Hospital in Toronto on Jan. 25. Two years since the pandemic started, there are calls for a wider inquiry or commission into what's gone wrong and lessons learned. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dr. David Walker knows sweeping inquiries into what went wrong in Ontario and Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic are "inevitable."

He believes now may be time to start that work, as Omicron recedes, restrictions lift and the pandemic hit the two-year mark on March 11, as declared by the World Health Organization.

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"You don't want to put it off forever," said Walker, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who chaired Ontario's expert panel on SARS and Infectious Disease Control.

"Despite its tragedies, a pandemic like this does give us a look at the structure of how we provide this public service that is health-care delivery and reminds us ... there are substantial gaps, and holes and weaknesses."

Walker outlined many of those in his panel's final report on SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that was released in 2004 and outlined a health-care system "crying out for change."

Recommendations in these reports are non-binding. Some were acted on, like structural changes to public health. He said others, such as addressing hospital surge capacity, were ignored and have gone on to cause severe strain during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. David Walker, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., chaired Ontario's expert panel on SARS in 2004. He's shown addressing reporters about the final report. Speaking recently about COVID-19, he says now may be the time to examine what went wrong and right. (CBC)

Walker expects this will come up again in any wider inquiries into COVID-19. He anticipates there will be multiple ones.

In Ontario during SARS, there was Walker's expert panel and an Independent SARS Commission, led by Justice Archie Campbell. Federally, there was a review by the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health.

All put out reports with similar findings, but had differing timelines, scopes and levels of power. His advice is to focus on what we've learned.

"It is far more helpful to identify lessons learned about best practice and structural opportunities than it is to start pointing fingers."

Ontario opposition parties want inquiry

Ontario has already had a commission on COVID-19 that was launched by the province.

The Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission found the province had no plan to address the pandemic or protect residents in long-term care. The investigation, which submitted its scathing final report last April, was limited in time and scope, solely focusing on one of the hardest-hit areas.

Ontario's New Democrats, Liberals and Greens are in favour of a wider inquiry for the province, with the NDP and the Liberals specifically mentioning a public inquiry. These can take longer and give the power to summon more people.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath actually tabled a motion at Queen's Park last year, calling for a public inquiry into COVID-19. It was dissolved when the Ontario Legislature dissolved and hasn't been retabled.

"I suspect we could easily table another motion. I suspect it will go the same way as the other one went," said Horwath. "We need to get the answers to what we did right, what we could have done better and how do we make sure we fix any problems that we faced before it happens again."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, chief medical officer Kieran Moore, right, and Health Minister Christine Elliott announce an easing of COVID-19 public health restrictions in January. The province would not say whether it supports a wider inquiry into COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Ontario government didn't respond yes or no when asked if it wants a wider inquiry, instead touting its response and the province's low mortality rate, compared to other parts of the world.

"We will continue to incorporate the lessons learned from the pandemic to ensure the right infrastructure and capabilities exist to respond to emergencies in the future," said the Ministry of Health in an email.

At the federal level, Health Canada says now's not the right moment for an inquiry.

"The government of Canada is focused on getting Canadians through this global health crisis and has signalled its intention to review Canada's pandemic responses at the appropriate time," it wrote in an email.

'Too big' to ignore

John Callaghan wants any inquiry to stay apolitical. He served as lead counsel for Ontario's long-term care commission during the pandemic and is a partner at Gowling WLG's Toronto office.

"Blaming prior governments is an easy way to deflect our own responsibility as a society," he said. "If you're going to make it a political fight, people are going to tune out."

Callaghan would like to see a national commission on COVID-19, looking at it both provincially and federally, that has more time and doesn't have to rush. He thinks work, like gathering evidence, can start now.

Ontario's opposition parties want an inquiry, but the province keeps mum. The CBC's Haydn Watters brings us the story.

If SARS was the precursor to COVID-19, Callaghan worries what's next. He thinks we owe it to future generations.

"We're in a position like they must have been in the 1840s or '50s before fire departments started. You know, I didn't care because your house burnt down. Well all our houses are going to burn down if we don't figure out how to deal with it now," he said.

"It's too big an issue frankly for them not to do it."


Have questions about this story? We're answering as many as we can in the comments.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

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