By the height of our participation in Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces had adopted a rigorous after-action review and lessons-learned process, conducted immediately after every significant combat or training activity. The aim is to learn lessons about what has gone well and to see where improvements are required. The process is conducted in a collegial and refreshingly blunt manner by the soldiers involved or supporting the fight, assisted by third-party experts. The report is then circulated to those getting ready to deploy, to help them be as prepared as possible. The system works well and results in unprecedented speed in changes to doctrine, equipment and training.
The Forces’ methodology could be applied to the coronavirus pandemic, which has become a national and global crisis on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Lives have been lost, millions of families devastated, and economies battered. As our history has shown, in a severe crisis Canadians have traditionally rallied around their elected leaders. True to form, government officials across the country are currently doing quite well in the court of public opinion during this pandemic, especially as compared with what is happening in other G7 nations.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over, however, Canadians can be expected to ask their elected leaders some focused questions on what happened and how we can do better when a similar pandemic strikes again. Another source of pressure for answers is the uncomfortable fact that many parts of the complex web of national and global institutions established to deal with global pandemics and economic meltdowns have not performed as hoped, and have shown themselves to be in need of some changes. One can almost feel the rumblings of some sort of commission of inquiry forming in the wings.
The broader an inquiry’s mandate, the longer it takes and the more it costs; partisan politics is also likely to enter the picture at some point. An investigative mandate that is limited and sticks to the point is best. An inquiry could also commission studies covering distinct phases of the COVID-19 emergency, much as the Canadian Forces did in Afghanistan after each brigade was deployed overseas.
The investigative team must remember that its mission is not a hunt for the guilty but rather a determined effort to learn how to do things better, based on the lessons of the immediate past. It would also be important for all the inquiry’s work and findings to be guided by the principle that issues of public health and safety are inextricably linked with the health of the economy, which has long-term implications throughout society.
We don’t yet know how long this pandemic will be with us, and therefore the starting date for an inquiry is uncertain. But we seem to have passed through the first phase: the months through June 2020, when the first wave was really hitting us hard. Eventually an inquiry will look into how well prepared we were for any pandemic, even before this coronavirus was detected, and into how Canada fared in the difficult early weeks and months.
An inquiry should include these questions about the first phase of the pandemic. What happened in the following areas, and how can we make improvements?
- What preparatory work was done to prepare for a pandemic in general, and for COVID-19 in particular, and by whom?
- Who knew that COVID 19 was likely to break out, when did they know and whom did they tell?
- What international and national institutions were actively involved in the initial warning stages, and how well did they communicate with each other?
- How did the virus arrive in Canada and spread, by both province and time?
- What preparatory work was initiated to repatriate Canadians who were abroad?
- What legislative tools and processes were available and used, at both provincial and federal levels?
- How was the federal-provincial-municipal interface, and how did it affect the quality of communications and message cohesion?
- Which federal departments played prominent roles?
- How was the flow of information to the public, by what means and to what effect?
- What was the quantity and availability of personal protective equipment and ventilators by region? Were the stockpiles sufficient at the start?
- What preparatory training and PPE investments worked well for our emergency responders?
- What fiscal and monetary measures were initiated to deal with the almost immediate massive levels of unemployment and the looming economic disruption?
- What was the response of the national food supply chain?
- What was the impact of the crisis on mental health?
For most Canadians, the COVID-19 pandemic will become a life-defining moment, never to be forgotten. The final toll to families in lives lost, those who got sick and associated mental health issues will be enormous. Our economy almost ground to a halt, millions were abruptly unemployed and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent to contain the damage. The least we can do is have an open, transparent and frank discussion about what worked, what needs improvement, and what changes we want to keep or introduce into our way of life to be ready for the future.