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National public health act could help Canada with future pandemic preparedness: CPHA

Canada's response to the first wave of COVID-19 was stalled by a localized approach, argues a health advocacy group in a new report that recommends the implementation of a national public health act to help the country with pandemic preparedness in t

Canada's response to the first wave of COVID-19 was stalled by a localized approach, argues a health advocacy group in a new report that recommends the implementation of a national public health act to help the country with pandemic preparedness in the future.

The Canadian Public Health Association released a review on Tuesday of Canada's initial response to the health crisis, before a second wave took off in parts of the country. The time period studied was January 2020 to September 2020.

The report says pandemic responses differed across Canada, because each province has its own Public Health Act. 

Strategies for things like testing and contact tracing were put in place by provinces and territories at the beginning of the pandemic, and the report says the COVID-19 crisis highlighted "the weaknesses" of that approach.

Ian Culbert, the executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, says Canada would benefit from a "federal legislation for public health – a Canada Public Health Act – with clear roles and responsibilities defined for all governments and stakeholders."

Culbert says while provinces would still handle public health responsibilities, a Canada-wide public health legislation would help set standards for services and would provide national funding to deliver them. 

He adds that implementation of a Canada public health act would require co-operation from all 13 provinces and territories, which may not be easy to achieve.

"Public health has always been local in nature, and that's its strength – it responds to local conditions – and we certainly don't want to remove the ability for public health to be local," Culbert said in an interview. "But the definition of local has changed. 

"And I think the time is right to bring national standards and a national perspective to public health." 

Culbert says the pandemic also highlighted Canada's lack of national data collection standards, especially in gathering "information concerning race, ethnicity and socio-economic status." He added that a national public health act could address that as well, rather than having the federal government rely solely on co-operation from provinces. 

Culbert says data collection helps detect people most affected by the pandemic so that services can be targeted to meet their needs.

"This deficiency has clouded the real impact of COVID-19 on Black and Indigenous populations and people of colour," Culbert said.

Other recommendations for future pandemic preparedness include developing and implementing mental wellness strategies, funding mental health programs, and implementing a basic income model. 

Some of those issues could be included in a national public health legislation, Culbert added, though things like basic income might necessitate its own legislation.

The report says its purpose was not to provide "a detailed analysis of the actions taken" in Canada's response to the first wave of COVID-19, but to provide "a non-governmental perspective and overview of the public health measures."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2020.

The Canadian Press