Private Sector Meets Pandemic Preparedness
Canada is struggling to secure COVID-19 vaccines and has now become the only developed country to shamefully dip into a fund for developing nations. Not only that, but despite having a whole year to plan for mass vaccination there does not appear to be a good distribution strategy in place either. At this point the United States is vastly outpacing Canada in their vaccine distribution effort with Canada holding 20th place globally.
It’s worth asking how we ended up in a situation where Canada is not able to produce its own vaccines, and why we had such poor pandemic preparedness overall.
Privatization was one major factor in this equation. The Harper-led conservative government chose to dismantle our national vaccine production capacity and let the private sector handle it. However, the problem with the private sector is that it’s primarily driven by profit incentives and there is no profit from investing effort into something that may happen at an undefined time in the future.
Businesses must invest their effort into actions that produce immediate and consistent profit or risk becoming bankrupt. Meanwhile, corporations have a further responsibility to their shareholders to demonstrate consistent profit to make their shares grow. Once again this incentive is at odds with spending time producing something that produces no immediate profit.
Incidentally, this is also the reason why we did not have sufficient PPE at the start of the pandemic, or the necessary testing capacity. Storing large amounts of protective gear is an expense that’s hard to justify. The Ford government discarded 90% of Ontario’s PPE stockpile when it came to power, presumably seeing it as dead weight. Unfortunately, once you do need this gear it’s needed quickly and in large volumes.
What the pandemic is illustrating is that the goal of generating continuous profit is directly at odds with the goal of having a robust system. Robustness requires having buffers and planning for the unexpected. However, these same buffers are seen as inefficiency from the profit perspective. This contradiction is one of the factors leading to recurring economic crashes in capitalist economies.
Since the system operates on thin margins it has difficulties adapting to rapid changes in the environment. This problem is further exacerbated by globalization which has resulted in local production being replaced by complex and fragile global supply chains.
What the pandemic is teaching us is that capitalist incentives are not compatible with having a robust economy that is able to survive market shocks like the one we’re living through now. This is especially true when it comes to providing for the essential needs of the public. We’re clearly seeing that the profit motive is not aligned with human wellbeing and does not serve the interest of the majority.
Canada must learn from this pandemic and ensure that we are much better prepared to handle the next disaster, whatever it may be. We don’t know when it will happen, or what shape it will take, but we can be certain that it will come at some point.
The solution is to create national capacity to ensure that necessities are available regardless of whether it’s profitable or not to produce and store them. Traditionally this has been achieved by growing the public sector. Not only does this approach allow us to start solving problems that are not profitable to solve, but it also has a number of other benefits. The public sector can be used as a tool to provide employment and guarantee that anybody who wants to work has a job, and it ensures a robust local industry that will not be outsourced to other countries.
As the immediate lesson from the pandemic, Canada needs to rebuild its public medical research capacity instead of continuing to rely on the whims of the private sector. This includes clinical trial capacity, vaccine production capacity and medical equipment stocks.
The JI Newsletter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. If using material from the newsletter, please credit the author and provide a link to the relevant newsletter in your attribution. Any content produced using material from the JI newsletter must be licensed under the same terms.