In a minority parliament, you’re never sure whether the next election is right around the corner. What is unusual about this moment, is that whenever that next election comes, we may have a sneak peek at a defining issue for voters: the COVID-19 vaccine.
In the modern 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy for most people to tune out day-to-day politics. This is justified most of the time, since very rarely does the news have a direct impact on their everyday lives. How often does the average Canadian really interact with their federal government, and how often do they feel the material impact of that interaction? Are there any examples beyond just tax season?
Within the next 12 to18 months (knock on wood), the federal government will coordinate a rapid, national immunization program for roughly 36 million people. Depending on which vaccine(s) ultimately end up being utilized, individuals will likely require at least two separate doses. This would necessitate at least 72-million vaccine doses (with millions more for contingency purposes) and hundreds of millions of syringes, sharps containers, alcohol swabs, bandages, and other relevant PPE. All told, the federal government will procure almost a billion units of materials that will have to be received, inspected, sorted, and transported across the country. The scale of the task ahead is staggering.
As things currently stand, the government is confident that Canada is in good shape from a material procurement standpoint. The government secured 194-million doses from 7 vaccine manufacturers (including 20-million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which set markets ablaze last week with its encouraging early results). It also has further options on more than 414-million doses, should they be needed. The government is very confident they are in a good position with respect to vaccine consumables. Most of the tenders for those items were issued over the summer and orders are already starting to come in.
But the challenge goes beyond just splashing the cash. There are also massive logistical hurdles to be overcome in order to distribute the vaccine across the country. Last week, the government closed a tender for at least one logistics company to help with distribution of the vaccine. The government is taking an optimistic view, with transport of the vaccine expected to begin between January and March of 2021. One of the biggest problems for firms bidding on this tender will be the cold-storage requirements. Two of the seven vaccine candidates Canada has secured required storage at temperatures as cold as -80 C. Beyond just transport, the Public Health Agency of Canada will have a critical coordination role to play with local and provincial health authorities. It will need to assist in identifying vaccination sites, setting standards and processes for operations, supporting the training of staff, and providing vital PPE for each vaccine location.
Assuming all goes well with that process, there is also the important (and deeply political) question of who gets to go first. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has already issued protocol stating that those over 70 receive the vaccine first, followed by health care professionals and then essential frontline workers. While the committee is arms-length from the government, there is no doubt that the jockeying for position on the list by various interest groups will be political fodder for the opposition. The committee also suggested that those in homeless shelters and prisons (both outbreak hotpots) should be prioritized as well. This is a recommendation that is certain to cause political consternation. Added to that is another major political football looming for the government: how to deal with those who are able but refuse to take the vaccine.
Above all, next year’s national immunization campaign will comprise an unprecedented government intervention in the lives of its citizens, and one with high stakes in which citizens will be very invested. Canadians, and the opposition parties, will be watching closely how the government executes this campaign, how we are faring relative to our allies around the world, and how quickly we can fully reopen our economy.