The West Block – Episode 12, Season 11

Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – January 16, 2022.

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 12, Season 11

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests:

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General 

Location: Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Hospitals and health care workers pushed to the brink again, as Omicron cases soar across the country.

Quebec trades the carrot for a big stick, threatening to impose a health tax on the unvaxxed and making it harder to buy non-essential goods.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: “Our people are tired. The only way that we know to get through COVID-19, this variant and any future variant, is through vaccination.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: As provinces ramp up their booster campaigns, would Ottawa support vaccine mandates?

We’ll speak to Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos about his COVID to-do list, the trucker flip-flop, and tracking Canadian cell phone data. Plus, what he’s learning about Canada’s fragile health care system.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Canadians, and indeed the Canadian Government, know full well that we don’t end this pandemic anywhere until it ends everywhere.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Stepping up the campaign for vaccine equity, the World Health Organization (WHO) wants every country to vaccinate 70 per cent of their population by the middle of the year. We’ll talk to Dr. Peter Singer about how we get there and what the WHO sees in the future for COVID-19 variants.

It’s Sunday, January 16th, and this is The West Block.

Thanks for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

Federal health officials say the Omicron wave sweeping through the country is the worst Canadians have experienced since the pandemic began.

Ottawa has been actively working with the provinces to brace for the unprecedented surge and pressure on hospitals, but it’s clear that there are cracks in the system.

The polarizing politics of the pandemic are on display, too, from taxes on the unvaccinated to flip-flops on unvaxxed truckers that could affect the supply chain here in Canada.

And there are questions about when the federal government will kick in the long promised money to help the straining health care systems across the provinces.

Navigating all of this is Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. He joins me now.

We appreciate your time. I know that you have a lot to juggle and so do we, so we’re going to dive right into it.

The first question I want to put to you, is something that we hear a lot about from our viewers, and that’s the question about the possibility of a tax on the unvaccinated. This is something that Quebec is saying they will do. You’ve said you understand some of the logic behind it, so I’m hoping we can get some clarity. Do you support the provinces, if they decide to put a tax on unvaccinated Canadians?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well thank you, Mercedes. And on that, there is one thing we don’t know and two things we do know. The thing that we don’t know is, obviously, the nature, the timing, the importance of that tax. The thing that we do know is that I have heard from all provinces and territories, including the Quebec government that they are going to continue to abide by the principle of universality of access to health care.

In Canada, we manage health care on the basis which is independent of people’s conditions, in particular, people’s ability to pay. So that’s a principle on which everyone agrees.

And the third thing that we know is vaccination is key out of this crisis. So every measure that we can put into place that is a right measure, is fine, is good, as long as it increases vaccination, with the benevolent purpose of protecting everyone against the very severe impact that COVID can have on their health and possibly on their life.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned in something that starts off as benevolent, you’re trying to protect people, you’re trying to protect others with vaccination, that actually opens the door, though, to serious legal and ethical questions: coercive measures to get people vaccinated that could potentially violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Does that worry you if provinces are looking at this kind of a tax?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well thank you, and let’s be very clear: no one that I think of, and I’m sure no one that is listening to us today, is thinking of forcibly vaccinated someone. We’re not obviously in this world, however, vaccine mandates work. We have vaccine mandates at the federal level for many months, for all federal public servants, everyone in the RCMP, everyone in the armed forces, everyone transiting through the border, everyone using a plane or a train, soon for every worker under federal regulation that works. 99 per cent of public servants have chosen to vaccinate themselves, so that leads to very good outcomes in terms of the overall vaccination rates, obviously, but more importantly, it gives everyone a better protection being vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mercedes Stephenson: But that’s a very different type of vaccine mandate. That’s an employer saying if you want to stay employed, or if you want to get on a train or a plane, that’s not saying if you want to access the health care system, you have to pay.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: That’s right. Well vaccine obligations, as I said, can be put into place in different ways. We have been quite successful at the federal level. We estimate, at least experts estimate that because of the vaccine mandates that we have put into place, along with vaccine mandates at provinces and territories level, approximately up to 3 million Canadians in the last few months have chosen to be vaccinated.

Mercedes Stephenson: I just want to move on because we do have a ton to get through with you as you can imagine. Truckers were a huge issue for you last week, unvaccinated truckers crossing the border back and forth. There was not just a 180 but a 360 your government did from saying they would have to be vaccinated by a particular deadline to then no, they wouldn’t with the CBSA coming out, and then you came out and said that information was wrong. There are a lot of exasperated people now who are saying they’ve sent truckers to the United States who will now have to quarantine when they get. What happened with that? How did it get so turned around?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Yes, indeed, the communication that was made a few days ago was confusing. What was clear and what has been clear, however, since November, is that by Saturday, everyone, every trucker entering into Canada or every Canadian or American trucker transiting through Canada must be vaccinated. That has been known for many months and truckers in very large numbers have chosen to be vaccinated and that’s the right thing to do not only to protect themselves, obviously, but also to protect their businesses and the industry. We know that the protecting against COVID-19 is not only the best health measure, but the best economic policy measure to apply to go through this crisis and to end it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, it just seemed very kind of bizarre that there wasn’t clarity on what the policy there is. There’s still a lot of frustration, as you know, with travel and coming in and out of the country.

One thing that struck me was the PCR tests. We’re PCR testing people when they come into the country, people who’ve chosen to leave either for essential or in some cases, we all know folks that are non-essential travel. Meanwhile, Canadians here are struggling to get a PCR test if they’re symptomatic. Do you still think that distributing those PCR tests to airports to test people who are returning from another country who’ve already had to have a PCR test somewhere else 72 hours in advance makes more sense than turning those tests over to the provinces that have a massive shortage?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well two key words here, both starting with are a) responsibility and b) resources. The federal government has a responsibility to look after borders. We need to secure our borders in this emergency context where there is a lot of Omicron travelling not only inside Canada but outside of Canada. That’s our responsibility and we’re taking it very seriously. Then b) resources, those resources that we’re using at the borders to protect Canadians and to protect people travelling through the borders, those resources are different from the resources that provinces and territories have access to.

Mercedes Stephenson: On health transfers, your government has promised more money to the provinces. It hasn’t come through yet. What’s the hold up there when we’re looking at the situation where the health care system is just bursting at the seams? Why not send the premiers the money right now?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Two key numbers here is first, 63 and then 25. $63 billion invested in health since the start of COVID-19 by the federal government, that’s in addition to all of the other transfers and the Canada health transfer in particular, that still exist, obviously, through COVID-19. $25 billion because we have promised during the campaign, a rapid investment of $25 billion in health care, a) to go through the crisis, b) to rebuild based on the damage that the crisis has created in our health care system, and c) to rebuild quickly for the future, the long term challenges that our health care system is facing. Many of these challenges were there before COVID-19. They’ve been enhanced because of COVID-19. We are in constant conversation with provinces and territories not only on the long term investments, but the absolutely essential, immediate short term investments we need to make.

Mercedes Stephenson: So when would those long term investments be coming, because your government’s been talking about them since before the pandemic?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well the $25 billion I mentioned, these were committed in the platform, in the last election of last fall. The $63 billion that I mentioned just keep increasing. Just a few days ago, we announced the delivery of $140 million rapid tests.

Mercedes Stephenson: I understand the commitments there, but there’s no time line on when the money will actually start to move.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: They will come soon, and obviously Minister Freeland will be sharing that news. But I’m saying, too, mostly is that we are currently focusing on the crisis sending billions of dollars to provinces and territories either in-kind or through monetary transfers because we know that we all need to work together to support each other through this crisis.

Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to booster shots, it looks like there could potentially be an accelerating schedule there. Some provinces are already talking about fourth boosters for people who are immunocompromised. Are you confident that Canada has enough supply to keep up if we start to see regular booster shots required for COVID-19?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Yes, Canada has done extremely well compared to other countries in terms of overall vaccination rates. We’ve been at the top of the lead for many months now, and that’s in large part thanks to the efforts of Canadians and Canadian health care workers. So I want to thank them, obviously, for what they’ve done, which is to make the right choice to be vaccinated.

And second, we have enough vaccine doses—enough boosters right now, to give a third dose to everyone. So if we had enough human resources, tomorrow, we could give everyone a booster shot in Canada. And we have an additional 35 million booster doses coming in the next few months. So we have ample vaccines in Canada. We just need to get those vaccines into the arms of people.

Mercedes Stephenson: You mentioned health care workers and there’s been such a tremendous strain on them throughout COVID-19. They’ve been working very hard. A lot of folks are choosing not to work in the health system anymore, they’re simply exhausted. And as those numbers drop, that puts more and more pressure on the remaining doctors, nurses, assistants who are working in hospitals and makes it harder to do their jobs. You’ve talked about hiring more doctors, more nurses, more health care workers, where is the government going to find those people because it seems like we need them and we need them in a hurry?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well three things on that. The first is a top priority, a top concern in the part of all my colleagues, health ministers across Canada. I spoke to them again last Thursday. That’s the greatest preoccupation.

The second thing is, obviously, health care resources, investments in them. Maintaining them, hiring them, that’s mostly a provincial and territorial responsibility.

Third, however, is a joint responsibility as well. We’ve signalled in the campaign just a few months ago that we’d be investing very significantly, supporting the efforts of provinces and territories around helping hire more, providing appropriate working conditions for the health care workers so we can keep them in the job, maintain their level of confidence and satisfaction because health care resources not only are key now, but they’ll be key in the longer term. We are facing an aging population with greater health care needs and fewer people to look after then as we get in older populations. So this is a tremendously important aspect of our relationship.

Mercedes Stephenson: And that’s all true, but I don’t think it answers the question about where you find more doctors and nurses because the problem doesn’t seem to be that we’re graduating so many of them and they’re staying in Canada and they’re unemployed. It seems to be people who are leaving the country, or that we’re not graduating enough, or that we are not making it possible for people who have trained in other countries to come and work here in the jobs that they’ve trained for. Is your government going to address that in some kind of a policy?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Yes, what you’ve said is really good, Mercedes. You’ve summarized everything that matters and you’ve also signalled that we need to work together and not only are we doing this right now through the provision of specific health care resources, the armed forces, the Canadian Red Cross, humanitarian organizations, from which we are seeking additional help in the particular crisis context, but overall and more broadly and the longer term, as you’ve said, we need to look after our people and for that we need to have better access and better support to health care workers.

Mercedes Stephenson: One last question that has a lot of Canadians concerned the Public Health Agency of Canada was collecting cell phone data from carriers about Canadian cell phones. People are worried that the government is somehow tracking them or tracing them. Can you explain to us what happened with that program and why the data was being collected?

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Well three things here. First, protecting the privacy of personal information is absolutely essential. The second thing is the process that has been followed has been both transparent and well-known for almost two years now. All of the information is public on websites, has been shared by the prime minister early in the pandemic, the objective is to protect Canadians health in a way which—that’s the third point—in a which makes absolutely no use of personal information. All that information that we’re using, that PHAC is using, is anonymized, de-identified. It’s also aggregated. Meaning, even if the agency wanted, and obviously it doesn’t want to do that, it couldn’t use personal information because it doesn’t have personal information on anyone in Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, thank you so much for taking the time to go through the many topics with us today. We hope to see you again soon. Take care.

Jean-Yves Duclos, Health Minister: Thank you for your kind invitation, and hello to everyone.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the WHO is recommending two new drugs to treat COVID. We’ll talk to the World Health Organization’s Dr. Peter Singer about the latest treatments for the evolving virus and vaccine equity in the developing world.

Mercedes Stephenson: The WHO has recommended two more drugs to help in the treatment of COVID-19. Finding medications to treat the virus is another step toward trying to end the pandemic, but vaccinations remain the priority and that’s a challenge for many developing countries.

Joining me now is Dr. Peter Singer, he’s special advisor to the director-general of the World Health Organization. Thank you much for joining us today, Dr. Singer. Nice to have you back on the program.

Vaccines, obviously, a huge topic of discussion. Vaccine equity is still a big concern, too, and my mind goes to all the booster shots that we’re giving out here in Canada that we’re hearing are necessary to prevent COVID. We’re now talking about fourth and maybe beyond that round of boosters. What impact do you think that will have on the distribution of vaccines to the developing world where there are still so few?

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: You’re right that vaccinating the world is a key part of ending the pandemic or at least ending the acute part of the pandemic. You know, in terms of the what, WHO has put forward a target of every country vaccinating 70 per cent of their population by July of 2022. 88 countries have not yet vaccinated 40 per cent. 36 countries have not yet vaccinated 10 per cent, which means health workers and high-risk people.

In terms of why we want to do that, or why anyone would want to do that, it’s to save lives and it’s a lot of lives if you vaccinate higher-risk people wherever they are in the world, and it’s also to tamp down future variants. So that’s one of the best ways to keep Canadians safe and prevent a future variant alongside other public health measures.

And in terms of the how, it’s sharing vaccines, sharing the technology, and of course, dealing with distribution bottlenecks.

And in terms of your booster question, boosters do put a strain on global vaccination. And WHO is not against boosters, we’re against inequity.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are you worried about the uptake of the booster when people are saying well I got doubly vaccinated but then I got Omicron. I personally am triply vaccinated. I got mine early last week, but I know that’s a discussion that’s out there. What is the WHO’s position on vaccines as a means to get out of this pandemic?

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: You know the primary goal with vaccination is to save lives, to prevent severe illness and death and hospitalization. And vaccination is pretty effective at doing that, which is why it’s so important that if you’re not vaccinated, you are at much higher risk of dying and please get vaccinated because it could save your life. And of course, there are unvaccinated people everywhere in the world, including in Canada, and those people happen to be the most vulnerable people, often, including in Canada. So the primary goal is to prevent severe illness and death. And of course, they can also prevent transmission along with public health measures. So that’s wearing a mask, ventilation, rapid testing, staying home when you’re sick, physical distancing, and so on. So we say it’s not vaccines only. It’s vaccines as a way to end at least the acute phase of the pandemic.

Mercedes Stephenson: When people do get COVID, vaccinated or unvaccinated, obviously doctors are looking at ways to treat in that scenario. Ideally, you avoid it, but if you’re not able to, new medications are becoming available. And I know the WHO is recommending two new medications for the treatment of COVID just on Friday. What can you tell me about those?

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: Yeah, there were two new medications recommended. I think the best way to understand this, is these medications expand the existing toolbox of medications. And as you say, an ounce of prevention with vaccines is better than a pound of cure, but it’s also good to have cures or at least treatments. And so these expand the toolbox. You can see them as alternatives to things that have been previously recommended.

Mercedes Stephenson: Omicron has sort of raised a question about the future of COVID. It’s certainly much more transmissible. Lots of folks are saying they didn’t know anyone who got the original COVID. Almost everyone, it seems, knows somebody who has caught this variant, and the numbers are just overwhelming but it seems like thankfully, in a lot of people, the sickness is not as severe as it was before. What does this variant tell us about how COVID is progressing and I hate to say it, but what can we expect from the next variant because it seems very likely that at some point there will be one?

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: Well firstly, Mercedes, Omicron is a wakeup call, as though we needed another wakeup call that we have to vaccinate the world. It’s really one of the best ways to keep Canadians safe. And this is kind of the counterintuitive thing, but one of the best ways to keep people in any country safe is to vaccinate everybody, a) because it saves a lot of lives, and b) because alongside other public health measures, it can help to prevent future variants. So it’s point one.

It’s also important for people to realize that these variants are predictable and potentially preventable. And so if we keep doing what we’re doing, unfortunately it is possible, even likely, that there will be another variant and we won’t be ending the pandemic. You know, Dr. Tedros likes to say that when we end the pandemic is a matter of choice, not chance. And if we choose to vaccinate the world and follow the other public health measures, we can at least accelerate the end of this acute phase of the pandemic. In terms of what those future variants will be like, it’s very hard to know that in terms of transmissibility, in terms of virulence, but it’s certainly possible that the next, the next letter in the Greek alphabet is pi, you know, pi could be worse than Omicron and that’s why it’s so important for us to act, vaccinate the world, to follow the public health advice of public health authorities and, you know, this is in our hands. The pandemic will end. There is hope. But when it ends, to a large measure is up to us, and we should act more than we’re acting now because we’re not doing well enough on vaccinating the world at the moment.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think the only kind of pi I want to hear about, and perhaps a few others, is the kind that I can eat. So I hope that doesn’t come to fruition. But thank you so much for your time, Dr. Singer. We appreciate it.

Dr. Peter Singer, Special Advisor to World Health Organization Director-General: Thank you so much, Mercedes. It’s good to be with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll be right back after this break.

Mercedes Stephenson:

That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We leave you know with a view of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. It just opened to skaters for the 52nd season. For the first time in more than 20 years, skaters will be able to enjoy the full 7.8 kilometres of the canal skateway.

For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. See you next week.

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