Like our southern neighbors, Canada has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Huge swaths of the economy have shut down, there is record unemployment, and in particular, seniors in long-term care homes have suffered tragically.
But why is it that, proportionate to our two countries' populations, Canada has fared far better than the United States, in terms of total confirmed cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 related deaths?
Toronto, like New York City, is a global city, a sprawling metropolis of communities that more than 2 million people call home. Similarly, it is home to one of the world’s busiest international airports, all factors that make it particularly susceptible to pandemics. But Toronto's province of Ontario has experienced a fraction of the casualties of New York City.
Why is this tale of two cities so different? It’s a complex question to answer, but there is one clear reason in my mind.
We’ve done this before.
In 2003, Toronto was, outside of Asia, the epicenter of the SARS pandemic, another type of coronavirus that killed hundreds worldwide. While not nearly as lethal or infectious as COVID-19 it was nonetheless a public health crisis that tested the capacity and resolve of our institutions, including our police departments.
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As the chief of the Toronto Police Services at the time, there are some lessons learned that may be helpful in navigating the far greater challenge we face today.
First, political leaders must provide citizens with honest, consistent and easy to understand information. There is a pervasive view among the political class that everyday people need to be protected from the truth. This could not be more wrong. People can handle bad news. What they cannot handle is the feeling they are being misled by their leaders during times of crisis.
During the early days of the SARS pandemic, we became concerned with the morale of our front-line officers who, like all health care and first responders, were particularly at risk of infection. We instituted daily briefings where our officers received the truth in real time while conducting in-depth training that continued long after the pandemic subsided.
Front-line workers who have been trained on measures they can take to keep their families safe are front-line workers who are going to be effective.
When political leaders decline to provide citizens with meaningful information, that gap will be filled with misinformation peddled by snake oil salesmen and conspiracy theorists who inevitably rear their ugly heads during times of crisis.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, wrongly dismissed by some as a political lightweight, has taken this lesson to heart. His daily news conferences have been a masterclass in crisis communication, delivering his message with empathy and in language that anyone, no matter their occupation or education, can understand.
Second, we must ensure that nobody is forced to make a decision between not putting food on the table or going to work sick. In 2003, a huge number of our front-line officers were made to self-isolate for nearly two weeks following possible virus exposure. We quickly moved to ensure that all officers would be paid in full during isolation, eliminating any incentive to work while sick. Canada’s federal government has implemented a similar policy on a huge scale with a new program that provides direct and immediate funding to all individuals who have lost their jobs.
Finally, we must see broad cooperation across all levels of government. Like the United States, Canada is a federation with strong province-level governments led by politicians who often don’t see eye to eye. Bickering between the provinces and the feds is part of our culture.
Coordinating a pandemic response between governments, police, public health agencies, first responders, the military and other stakeholders is a herculean task. During the SARS crisis, despite best intentions, it was clear that Canada was woefully unprepared, with a lack of coordination being a key problem. As the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently noted: “Back then, Ontario did not even have a pandemic plan. There was virtually no cooperation between the federal and provincial governments.”
Today we are seeing an unprecedented level of cooperation across all levels of government. This is personified again by Ontario’s plain-spoken premier, who has gone to great lengths to praise the work of his long-time rival Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stating that: “Now is the time to put politics aside. No matter what our political stripe, we must all be Team Ontario and Team Canada.”
There are significant challenges ahead including shortages of personal protective equipment. Perhaps most importantly, we must plan for subsequent waves of outbreaks, just as we experienced in Toronto during SARS.
But the cooperation we are witnessing is improving daily. And it instills confidence in our citizens that the institutions they count on are working together to fight and win the greatest challenge faced in generations.
Julian Fantino is the chairman of Aleafia Health Inc. He was chief of the Toronto Police Service, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, commissioner of Emergency Management and was later a member of Parliament and Canada’s associate minister of Defense.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US can fight coronavirus with key lessons from Toronto's SARS response