It’s Canada’s own fault we’re at the back of the vaccine line
Living in Mulroney’s world
Vaccines, or the lack thereof, have dominated the headlines of every major publication in the country for the better part of the last two months. Every day, the public is bombarded with messages of hope or doom about our supply. On Monday we’re getting 5000, on Tuesday we’re not getting any, on Wednesday last week’s shipments are delayed, on Thursday we should expect a flood of vaccines coming in, etc., and repeat. While politicians point fingers at drug manufacturers, foreign governments, and at each other, the story of Canada’s underpreparedness for vaccination has its roots in the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 90s.
While much of the infrastructure for producing vaccines domestically in Canada was present by mid-century, with several major labs located in Alberta and Ontario, the introduction of a little-known trade deal called NAFTA soon changed all that. By the turn of the millennium, neoliberal economic policy dominated either side of the political aisle in both Canada and the United States, and industry profit became the chief factor in policy making. Pharmaceutical companies which had been running or partially funding these plants quickly outsourced their research and facilities to larger economic centres in the US or Europe, and within a few years domestic vaccine production was cut to zero. While vaccine research continued in universities, any and all findings were carried out in foreign facilities. As far as policy makers were concerned, though, the move was a win-win. Large and expensive facilities no longer had to be subsidized, and both provincial and federal governments made a tidy profit from liquidation.
By November 2020, the gravity of the mistake was obvious. Throughout the following months, officials desperately tried to secure every possible foreign surplus of vaccines they could get while reassuring the public that everything was going according to plan (it wasn’t). Without the means of production, Canada waits with everyone else, while Western Europe and the USA continue to inoculate millions of their own. Worse, Canada elbowed underdeveloped nations out of the way, becoming the only G7 nation to take vaccine doses from a fund meant for poor countries. As the vaccine supply came under increasing strain, it seemed like officials suddenly remembered that trading essential safeguards and fallbacks for public health for what amounted to a figurative, crisp $20 bill was a REALLY bad idea, and now the cycle of political finger pointing and media fear-mongering is back to running its usual course.
The stripping of domestic vaccine production is yet another lesson in terrible short-term thinking, and a reminder of the destructive repercussions late 20th century neoliberalism continue to wreak upon us all. Both successive Conservative and Liberal governments were complicit in the destruction of the nation’s vaccine industry, and, as often happens, it is the Canadian public that has been left dealing with the fallout. For the sake of the next generation, in the looming shadow of future pandemics, we need to reinvest in domestic medical facilities and research, and we need to do it now.