Canada’s top doctor is calling for sweeping structural changes in the wake of COVID-19 and in time for a successful recovery from the pandemic.
In the chief public health officer’s annual report, titled “From Risk to Resilience: An Equity Approach to COVID-19,” Dr. Theresa Tam describes the broader consequences of the pandemic and how a “health equity approach” is crucial for recovery and response to future health crises.
“COVID-19 has shone a real spotlight on equalities in health and systemic gaps resulting in inequities,” Tam said during a news conference on Wednesday.
“I do see COVID-19 as a catalyst for collaboration from health, social and economic sectors, and I have observed at the federal level, but also from local levels, and provincial levels.”
Overall, Tam is calling for a “more sustained approach.” She singled out three areas where action should be taken to improve the country’s pandemic preparedness, response, and recovery.
The first acknowledges that leadership and governance “at all levels” needs to be sustained for structural change to occur.
In many ways, governments across the board have been able to collaborate to tackle the pandemic, according to Tam. She believes that this progress needs to not only continue, but become “measured and adjusted” to eliminate inequities. She said the best way forward on this is through the collection of ample data, to “understand the multiple needs of people.”
The second is social cohesion.
“We need to make sure the population is continuing to observe public health measures,” said Tam.
The third is to strengthen public health capacity. Tam said the pandemic has highlighted the need for a “robust and agile” public health system that has the resources and abilities to tackle emergencies, as well as inequities.
Tam said “every level of government” could benefit from strengthening its capacity.
“It’s shone a spotlight on the importance of public health,” she said.
“A crisis helps us understand.
“We understand often racialized, often women, working in precarious situations, maybe single parents, are trying to essentially look after our elderly and our most vulnerable populations. So the question, really, in this report is calling for this to be a more sustained approach. Why can’t we have those government structures beyond crisis and into recovery?”
The report outlines in detail how COVID-19 has only inflamed existing inequities among seniors, women, racialized Canadians and essential workers. Tam said these groups were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“These findings are more than just uncomfortable facts about our country during this pandemic,” Tam said. “They’re the lived realities of countless Canadians.”
Employment conditions and security, stable housing, access to health, education and social services systems like child care, and mental health supports were cited as areas of improvement to make the elimination of stigma and discrimination “tangible” in Canada.
Long-term care homes were hit hard in Canada during the first wave of the pandemic. According to the findings, residents of long-term care homes accounted for 80 per cent of the COVID-19-related deaths in Canada as of August.
It’s cited as a major factor in why Canada ranks 79th out of 210 countries when it comes to coronavirus-related deaths.
Communication ‘a challenge’
The report identifies that “active, timely and clear” communication has been a challenge over the last nine months.
She detailed a number of issues, including communicating with the public about the ever-evolving science around the disease and current actions to take. The “deluge” of information Canadians have been exposed to only “underscores the need for public health officials to regularly confirm the state of the pandemic and outline priority actions,” the report reads.
“Information needs to be tailored and locally contextualized,” she said, “while at the same time balanced with consistent key messaging being shared across the country.”
Tam noted that this is crucial to maintaining public trust, and that that trust is “key to vaccine uptake.”
She urged for proper risk communication, to enable people to make informed decisions to protect themselves and others. In turn, she said, this type of communication can help identify and dispel rumours and misinformation, which she said can not only hinder public health efforts to fight the pandemic, but also “exacerbate racism and fear” and sometimes result in “dangerous behaviour.”
— with files from the Canadian Press