Toronto Health Story
Dennis.Raphael at mail.atkinson.yorku.ca
Fri Apr 25 12:16:11 PDT 2003
Wake Up Ottawa, We've Got A Crisis
By JACK LAYTON Globe and Mail - Friday, April 25, 2003
Richard Schabas attempted to calm everyone in these pages yesterday when he
wrote that SARS in Ontario is "petering out." I wish he were right. But I
fear he's not. Over the past few days, I have spoken to medical experts in
Ontario and British Columbia, none of whom shares Dr. Schabas' prediction.
Indeed, Dr. Schabas himself, in the current Canadian Medical Association
Journal, writes, "we should not base our current planning on either of these
extreme scenarios" -- namely, pandemic or disappearance. In that, we can
Just two months ago, who had ever heard of a disease called SARS? Today, it
is affecting people in 25 countries. Now the choice facing the federal
government is this: Do we hope Dr. Schabas is correct, or put in place a
meaningful national plan to combat this outbreak -- and the next?
Consider that the two diseases about which public health officials have
spoken the most in the past two weeks, SARS and West Nile virus, are both
new and imported. These could well be the type of threats this century will
bring, and Ottawa must do better than dumping global problems on local
Prudence, not panic, dictates that the Prime Minister wake up and engage.
Three years ago, Canada's Auditor-General recommended a national public
health strategy. Were such a strategy in place today, we would have national
public health standards to recommend how citizens stay healthy, how
institutions respond to health crises and how resources are allocated.
Instead, we have a fragmented response, with local authorities scrambling to
do their best without national leadership. Viruses do not change when they
cross borders, and public health responses should not either, yet when SARS
first hit Canada, B.C. had different isolation requirements than Ontario.
Leaving crises response to local authorities is shortsighted enough, but
letting them pay for it, too, is simply staggering. Extra funding is needed
to educate Canadians about SARS symptoms, hire more workers, counsel people
in quarantine, and provide help for patients whose surgeries have been
It's been more than 40 days since the first Canadian SARS case was
discovered, yet no assistance package has been offered to affected areas.
Health Minister Anne McLellan says nobody had asked for financial aid. Only
in Canada would this jurisdictional nonsense prevent a level of government
sitting on a $14.8-billion surplus from volunteering to help another. Ottawa
could show some leadership and simply act. It could launch a national public
health campaign around issues as simple as hand washing and covering one's
mouth when coughing.
Similarly, Ottawa could listen to the WHO and enact screening at airports
for people who are sick. It's laughable that we screen people at airports
for nail clippers, but not a virus whose global impact is far from certain.
Ottawa should also be proactive with a recruitment plan to attract Canadian
doctors and nurses home from the United States. If it is truly ambitious, it
could fund research to develop a SARS vaccine and ensure research remains in
the public domain.
Employment Insurance rules have commendably been relaxed for workers in
quarantine. But this doesn't help contract, self-employed and part-time
workers in quarantine, who are ineligible for EI. For workers simply laid
off -- in particular, low-wage hospitality workers -- no EI support exists
for those who might not meet EI requirements.
Canada deserves better. We can't simply hope the worst is behind us, for if
sound public health teaches anything, it's that there is more to come.
Jack Layton, Leader of the Federal NDP, was Chairman of Toronto's Board of
Health for six years.
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