As the early days of the coronavirus pandemic raged, Canadian public health officials found themselves facing down what the country’s top doctor on Wednesday described as “swabaggedon.”
The swift and sudden onset of the highly contagious virus saw a global race for everything from personal protective equipment, to ventilators, to chemical testing agents and medical swabs, with reports emerging of some countries such as the United States stealing medical supplies on the runway from allies.
Speaking at a virtual conference of Canadian public health officials, Tam described an all-out rush to try to secure the supplies needed for a robust domestic response.
“We had to find swabs from everywhere, very high-level political leadership had to call around to get things,” she said, noting that her public health colleagues quickly began calling the situation “swabaggedon.”
Tam spoke as part of a meeting of public health officials focusing on the pandemic response and, along with deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo, took questions from a moderator about the challenges and most resonant moments they have faced so far.
“Canada and the rest of the world came to learn about the fragility of the global supply chain,” Njoo said. “We recognized in the early days this was sort of, I think our deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland called it the Wild West.”
“We sometimes were undercut,” Njoo acknowledged. “Sometimes that was challenging.”
Both pointed to the March border closures as a striking moment.
“That’s just an indication of how extraordinary that moment is in our history,” said Tam.
“It’s never been done before.”
The government barred foreign nationals from entering the country in March and that same month, put the Canada-U.S. border into lockdown except for certain essential travellers.
A loophole continues to exist, however, in that the U.S. is allowing Canadian travellers to enter the U.S. by air for any reason even though the land border remains shut.
The current closure order lasts until Oct. 31.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government has no plans to change that but also won’t do anything to prevent Canadians from exploiting the loophole to travel into the U.S., which is currently a global epicentre with tens of thousands of new cases being reported every day.
“Ultimately, if someone chooses to travel, we’re not going to keep them imprisoned in Canada,” Trudeau said in an interview with Global News Radio 680CJOB on Wednesday morning.
“There’s freedom of movement in this country, but people have to recognize they’re putting themselves at risk.”
Both Tam and Njoo stressed the importance of Canadians making the “difficult” choices to avoid doing the things they want to do as pandemic fatigue weighs on society.
“We still have many months of the response,” Tam said, warning that Canadians choosing not to limit their social contacts are going to strain the testing and contact tracing system.
Njoo noted the widespread adoption of non-medical masks has been an example of the trust Canadians have in science and facts when communicated clearly, even while a small number reject the facts.
Tam said the widespread recognition by Canadians that sacrifices are needed to keep as many as possible safe have made a key difference in the success of the public health response so far.
“Social cohesion is a critical ingredient to our response,” she said. “The ability of our society to put the needs of the group above their own was, I think, exceptional.”