- by Paul Conway

We blew it. We absolutely blew it, because we forgot. We must never forget that way again. I am speaking, of course, of Covid-19, and our absurd state of unpreparedness.

Notice that I say “we” forgot, not “they”. We are a democracy. We cannot expect our leaders to remember things that we do not want remembered. When it comes to remembering, we are in charge.

There is no excuse for our negligent memories. We have had enough experience with epidemics to have them carved on our souls. They have been with us, wreaking havoc, devastation, death, and sorrow probably since the sixteenth century when something wiped out the people of the St. Lawrence Valley, certainly since the seventeenth. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, yellow fever, polio, AIDS: we know by hard experience what they can do. What demon possessed us that we became so forgetful, so complacent?

Contrast our after-response to our wars. For them we hold an annual ritual of remembrance and force our leaders and public officials to wear red cardboard badges, on pain of shaming, to remind them that we the people have not forgotten. We expect them to remember, and to keep us prepared.

We also permit ourselves to be taxed in order to maintain the preparedness. I am referring to the armed forces, reservists, machinery, equipment, facilities, and entire infrastructure we sustain to keep us in a state of at least minimal preparedness for action, and all the knowledge we have accumulated and do not forget about how to mobilize on a massive scale. We have done it twice in the past century, and we could do it again.

Our mobilization for Covid-19 has been nothing like that, but clumsy and ad hoc in the extreme. Our principal error was to confound epidemic response with routine health care. It was as if, in mobilizing for a world war, we had first sent our police and fire departments into battle, while insisting they maintain civil order and put out fires. Health care, as normally conducted, and epidemic response, are two entirely different enterprises. No doubt they can overlap, but they are different.

So what must be done? First, we must mobilize memory. Lest we forget, I suggest we dedicate March 8th, the date of the first Covid death in this country, as Epidemic Remembrance Day, with all the solemnity, wreaths, and rituals of our war-focussed precedent. Cenotaphs could suitably be erected outside every hospital and long-term care facility.

We must remember the dead, we must remember the continuing afflicted, we must remember the gallantry and self-sacrifice of those providers and workers who fought and are fighting the good fight and holding the line. We must remember the ingenuity of those who discovered and built the weapons, such as vaccines and other miracles to come. We must tell the stories of our epidemics, their victims and their heroes, and tell them over and over and over again until they are embedded beyond any chance of loss in our memories and memory aids.

Then we must sort out the constitutional mess. Our founders assigned health care to the provinces, and for the normal flow of need there is no particular disadvantage to that. An epidemic, even a local or sectoral one, let alone a global pandemic, is not of that kind. It needs the kind of concentrated leadership, expertise, and authority that only the Federal Government can offer. Its imperfections, evident as they may be, are nothing compared to the imperfections of thirteen separate jurisdictions trying to deal with the same national invasion while continuing to respond to normal needs for medical care. The evidence for that observation unfolds in full view day by day.

Having done that, we must create the capacity to mobilize, a permanent establishment of specialists, reservists, facilities, dedicated machinery and equipment, legislation, and all the planning, know-how, training, and rehearsals required by such huge and urgent enterprises. This capacity will not emerge in a hurry, but with a little bit of luck we will have enough time. Massive epidemics are fortunately rare.

Finally, we must resign ourselves to the need to pay for all this preparedness. We are having and will continue to have the opportunity to understand who has been hurt and in what ways by the rampant disease and our wretched lack of preparation. We need to assign the burden of paying accordingly, but also with all the moral illumination social justice can offer.

The easy part of this response is the Epidemic Day of Remembrance. So let us have one, not only for Covid-19, but for all the epidemics of our past. The rest can follow, and will, as long as we the people sustain the resolve.