HIGH & DRY
Canada’s supposed lack of capability to manufacture vaccines has quickly become a top issue for public discussion. Equally quickly, it has degenerated into a partisan argument. As is common with all partisan arguments, the focus of this debate is on pinning the blame on the opposing political camp. Lost in the cacophony of these back-and-forth accusations is the vital fact that in today’s world, a country’s ability to have, and rapidly scale up, manufacturing capacity for a vast variety of medications is a vital component of its national security; biological warfare isn’t exactly a novel idea, nor is a blockade preventing supplies from elsewhere.
The initial brouhaha over Canada’s alleged lack of ability to manufacture vaccines – a claim by the Prime Minister that was quickly disproved by knowledgeable people from the pharmaceutical industry and academia – was doused somewhat by the sudden announcement that Canada would be getting 249,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine within days. Depending on one’s partisanship, this quantity was either abysmally small, or a great achievement that brought a sigh of relief to a worried nation. If there was any euphoria over the announcement, however, it was diminished in short order when CNN reported to that according to Procurement Minister Anita Anand, the number of doses ‘could actually be less than half that’ (emphasis added). This could mean that fewer than 62,500 Canadians get the vaccine in the short term. This represents roughly 0.167% of the Canadian population. This piece of bad news was then offset by another announcement, that Canada would be getting 168,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Moderna. The see-saw is likely to continue for a while.
The pace of future deliveries of the vaccine is another contentious issue. Prime Minister Trudeau stated that ‘majority of Canadians’ were likely to be vaccinated by September 2021. This pace is in stark contrast to the US, and the comparison rankles particularly because Canadians generally have a much higher opinion of healthcare in Canada compared to the US.
Rising above the nitty-gritty of this one particular issue, the relevant question is – are we adequately geared to cope with a serious, long-lasting emergency that brings to a halt international trade and movement of materials that Canada needs to be self-sufficient in? Some countries have natural limitations in terms of availability of certain critical items, but fortunately, Canada is blessed with abundant natural resources and a history of industrial and technological development, so the potential for self-sufficiency exists in large measure. All that is required is proper planning and execution of policies that would lead to building up the required domestic strength to make us self-sufficient.
That last point is where I think our biggest weakness lies – and it doesn’t matter which party is in power. My even bigger worry is that the imperative of formulating and implementing effective policies on this front is not being seen as a matter of national security.
A SOLID START
When I was in high school, my Economics teacher had a habit of loaning voluminous books to us that were far more advanced than what was required for our curriculum. In one such book, I came across an interesting claim:
There are no poor countries – only countries that are poorly governed.
This was, obviously, an oversimplification – I was painfully aware of the colonial exploitation that made India economically poor – but there was a kernel of truth in there. Little did I know that in a few years’ time, I would be reminded of this statement.
CLOSING THE BARN DOOR
I was in Kenya when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. Six months later, a US-led coalition launched a military operation to liberate Kuwait called Operation Desert Storm. Kenya is also blessed with many natural resources, but oil is not one of them. Local branches of international oil majors such as Esso and BP are merely trading operations. The country depends totally on imports, via its ports on the Indian Ocean. This area is very close to the Middle East, and marine traffic was severely impacted by the war. It was unclear whether ships carrying petroleum products would be able to continue their voyages to Kenya.
At this point, Kenya’s Energy Minister Nicholas Biwott called an emergency meeting of senior officials from the ministry and the oil industry to discuss the crisis, and how to ensure uninterrupted supplies of petrol, diesel and gas.
My colleague Jane was beside herself with fury on hearing the news. “He calls a meeting about this now?” she asked me. “Where has he been for the last six months?” She wondered how the country would be able to function if supplies of petrol etc. were cut off.
FOUR PILLARS AND A ROOF
In my view, national security rests on four pillars and is covered by a roof. The pillars are:
- Strong military ability, both in terms of the number of people and equipment,
- Manufacturing capacity for critical items that would enable continuation of life as close to normal as possible,
- A healthcare system that can accommodate a sharp rise in demand in a short time, and
- Competent espionage.
These pillars are covered and protected against external forces by a strongly united public.
Unfortunately, there is a lot to be desired on all of the above.
Military Strength (or lack thereof):
Much has been written and said about the suboptimal state of Canadian military forces in terms of personnel and equipment, but the case of procurement of ordinary 9mm pistols perhaps captures every shortcoming of our nation when it comes to procurement by our military. As David Pugliese reported in December 2018, the pistols that are currently in use (the term ‘use’ being defined very loosely here) were manufactured in 1944, as part of the armament effort for World War 2. Many governments later, of both the Conservative and Liberal parties, they are falling apart and not yet replaced. A plan was made in 2016 to replace them in ten years, i.e. by 2026. At that point, they would be 84 years old. By contrast, the British Army carried out the entire process of replacing its 9mm pistols in just two years.
At the other end of the spectrum, our record on procuring perhaps the largest piece of military equipment – naval ships – is no better. It was once again David Pugliese who brought us this disturbing piece of news: that a process that started in 2008 to secure several ships is still at a point where ‘construction of the first ship isn’t expected to begin until the early 2020’s’.
Many other instances can be cited, for things big and small, but the bottom line is that our military procurement processes aren’t keeping our national security in focus. If they did, our military wouldn’t be so hopelessly under-equipped and behind schedule.
During the US presidential election in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot was harping on the free trade agreement being hammered out for North America. He kept talking about a ‘giant whooshing sound’ as jobs would leave the US for Mexico. Eventually he dropped out of the race.
Around the same time, China was admitted as a member of the World Trade Organization. The ‘giant whooshing sound’ was of jobs leaving most western countries for China. This was initially heralded as a great benefit to the world economy. Not much thought was given to creating excessive reliance on one country, that too a country that was soon envisaging global dominance for itself, for all sorts of manufactured products. This was necessarily going to put its interests athwart those of other countries, but this basic reality of politics was ignored by the political class.
As the Covid-19 crisis hit, we discovered to our chagrin that Canada does not manufacture even the humble face mask. This revelation brought home a (short-lived) realization of having a domestic manufacturing base. Many businesses stepped up to meet the demand for face masks and hand sanitizer. Many of them were even providing it free of cost. Sadly, the Canadian government does not appear to share their enthusiastic patriotism; it was recently revealed by CBC that the government has chosen to procure hand sanitizer from overseas firms, to the tune of $ 570 million. Almost half of this amount ($ 252 million) was paid to a China-based car maker.
Hand sanitizer is hardly an isolated case; over the last nine months we have heard about many other critical items being sources from overseas, mainly China.
The decimation of Canadian manufacturing capability happened over a long period, and for various reasons. It was always going to be an uphill battle to restore that capability – assuming that would have been on the agenda at all. In that light, the crisis of Covid-19 – horrible though it is – represented a rare, almost inconceivable opportunity to kick-start the process of re-industrializing Canada. That opportunity has sadly been missed, and the infatuation with sourcing everything from China continues. Given the realization of our vulnerability that Covid drove home, this can only be described a deliberate neglect of national security.
Canadians are fond of making the puff-chested claim that our healthcare system is the best in the world. However, ground reality is at odds with this claim.
I say that because ‘best’ is a comparative measure, relative to how well or poorly other countries are doing; a better measure is arrived at if we can agree on standards of care that we expect from our system. So far, I have not seen any attempts being made for that exercise. Maybe it has been done and I missed it.
Whether I did miss it or not, however, the actual outcomes on the ground provide ample cause for concern. (All data below is from Health Quality Ontario)
Pediatric patient, first surgical appointment
Priority 2 patient – target time for appointment 30 days, Average wait time 90 days. 61% of patients were not seen in the target time.
Pediatric patient, needing surgery
38% were not treated within target time.
When target time was 7 to 28 days (suggesting critical need for surgery) – 53% were not treated within target time.
Time from decision to surgery (breast cancer) – target time 14 days. 39% of patients were not treated within target time.
While it is generally known that Covid-related lockdown has added to wait times, the situation was far from ideal earlier as well. As the following chart shows, pre-Covid, the target time for pediatric surgery was missed in 12% to 15% of the cases.
The above are among the most vulnerable patients. If we fail to meet the target times in 12% of these cases when things are hunky-dory, it points to an urgent need for improvement. Given the possibility of chemical or biological warfare, this is a serious shortcoming in public safety.
It should be possible for Public Health Authority Canada to compile a comprehensive database of the effectiveness of the delivery of healthcare in the country. This could provide us with a starting point for a plan to make the necessary improvements in our healthcare system.
Through a combination of history and geography, Canada has remained immune to external threats. This has led us into a sense of complacency that is, frankly, misguided in today’s globalized world. Advancements in information technology have added to the risk. Up to WW1, what mattered militarily was whether a target was within artillery range or not – but aircrafts were beginning to change this. In WW2, with better aircraft, the relevant factor was whether a target was within aircraft range or not. In today’s world, the deciding factor is whether a target is accessible digitally or not. A hostile power can disable our society and, crucially, our defenses, remotely.
In light of this, our government’s reluctance to rule out Huawei from our 5G infrastructure is incomprehensible, particularly when the other members of the ‘Five Eyes’ group have done so. Equally difficult to understand was the decision to award a contract to a Chinese firm to install screening equipment at Canadian diplomatic missions abroad. Beneath the surface of official platitudes, our relationship with China has frayed considerably. Their envoy to Canada is openly making statements that should be insulting to all Canadians, and particularly invite reaction from those in official capacity.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t other hostile forces whose interests are at odds with the welfare of Canadians. Cameron Ortis, RCMP’s director general of national intelligence coordination committee was charged in September 2019 with preparing to share sensitive information with a foreign entity or terrorist organization and with sharing operational information in 2015. The CBC reported that a year later, RCMP had not implemented ways to tighten its security protocols that it had itself flagged. Who are these ‘foreign entities’ and ‘terrorist organizations’? We don’t know. Perhaps we don’t need to know too much in detail, as national security is quite likely involved. But we do need assurance that RCMP has followed through on its own advice about how to improve their systems. Their failure to do so tells us that our officialdom is not serious about national security.
THE ROOF – PUBLIC UNITY
Canadians are a united lot. But as I see it, that unity is under relentless attack nowadays. Intense polarization along political / ideological lines is a major contributing factor. Common ground seems to have disappeared right before my eyes – and I came to Canada only 16 years ago. In large part, this degradation is fed by the culture of social media, which quickly spills over into the real world. It has become common to read and hear cries of ‘Traitor!’, ‘Lock her / him up!’ and other, more unsavory expressions of disapproval.
Things are not helped by the supposedly more compassionate side, which delights in painting entire groups in derogatory terms – for example, the claims about the racism of whites being thrown about indiscriminately, or the constant reference to injustices of the past. Sure, our predecessors were flawed – as all humans are – but they did manage to create a great country that we can be legitimately be proud of. Many people were made to suffer greatly, especially First Nations, but Canada wasn’t a hell-hole by any stretch for very many people. Our aim should be to heal the wounds of the past while building on the successes, to create an even better nation. Instead, many a times, I see statements that deepen the divide between groups.
Whether these statements are made for political gain or ideological satisfaction, those making them forget that they are corroding the fabric of national cohesion. In times of crisis, this corrosion will be a major obstacle to acting in a united front – as we are seeing happening in the current crisis. We need to bear in mind that there are even worse crises possible.
As I view the shaky pillars and leaky roof of our national security, I am reminded of the question that my colleague Jane had asked. If, God forbid, another, more severe disruption than Covid were to happen, chances are that our collective response – from government as well as people – will be too little, too late, just like the Kenyan Energy Minister Biwott’s response was. I hope we don’t end up asking each other: “They are doing this now?”