The fact Canada lacks capacity to manufacture its own coronavirus vaccine should be a scandal.
But there’s a certain irony in Conservative leaders like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney jumping on this bandwagon now that its potential to be used against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government in Ottawa has become evident.
When Pfizer Inc. announced it was retooling its plant in Belgium to increase production of COVID-19 vaccine, resulting in delays in its shipments to Canada, Ford was soon thundering about how he’d deal with the problem if only he were the prime minister.
He would have been on the phone to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla pronto, Ford insisted. “I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,” he blustered, an image most of us would rather not contemplate.
For his part, as long ago as last spring when the main concern was a shortage of personal protective equipment, Kenney was calling for Canada to start “reshoring” capacity to make non-medical facemasks, respirators and ventilators closer to home.
That was when Donald Trump was still president of the United States, so Kenney loyally framed his remarks to a conservative-packed Washington-based organization called the Canadian American Business Council as an attack on China and called for manufacturing capacity to be shifted to North America.
It’s probably a good bet Kenney is less enthusiastic about the U.S. part of that equation now that a pipeline-skeptical Democrat named Joe Biden is president.
This week federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole demanded the federal government make its contracts with suppliers like Pfizer public. That’s not a bad idea in principle, although it’s probably smart not to break a contract you’re relying on to supply your country’s vaccine needs before the stuff is in hand.
It is, of course, ironic that this should be suggested at the same time as the Kenney government flatly refuses to provide any details of his multi-billion-dollar gifts and promises to TC Energy.
Regardless, while it’s true Canada does need its own capacity to develop and produce vaccines, it’s important to remember that no matter what they’re saying now, Conservatives have very little interest in this idea.
This is all about putting the Trudeau government on its back foot.
Even if by some miracle it were to come about, the prevailing right-wing ideology means Conservatives would set it up for failure by ensuring it was run by the private sector according to neoliberal principles.
So despite their rhetoric, which exploits legitimate Canadian concerns about the faltering rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Canada (much of which is the fault of Conservative provincial governments), voting for Conservatives to get action on this file is not a good bet.
Unfortunately, voting for the Liberals isn’t either. And there’s no guarantee the federal NDP would be much different, although their current policy is better. Still, the worst of the three major federal parties to address this issue would be the Conservatives because of the ideological blinders they wear, in particular their deep hostility to anything that shows the value of government and public enterprise.
Remember that an important part of this story is how Conservatives under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, practically a big-L Liberal by today’s Republicanized Conservative standards, privatized Canada’s storied Connaught Laboratories in 1986 and allowed its ownership and assets to pass to other countries.
Between 1914 and its demise, Connaught Labs played a key role in the discovery, development and distribution of insulin, created and manufactured vaccines for polio, smallpox and influenza, and pioneered numerous other revolutionary treatments and therapies.
So of course Conservatives decided it would be better to sell it off to the private sector!
Notwithstanding plenty of evidence to the contrary, their faith the private sector always does a better job is unshaken. Their instinct with any public enterprise — especially one that visibly does a better job than the private sector can — is to dismantle it as quickly as possible.
So, as we saw in Alberta with the medical testing lab planned by the NDP in Edmonton, the United Conservative Party pulled the plug as soon as it was in power, never mind the absence of a viable private-sector alternative. Construction work stopped within days and the site was seeded with grass. I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t sow the ground with salt!
As we all understand, Canadian Conservatives have not changed their views about the imagined superiority of private over public enterprise since the ’80s. Indeed, they are far more rigidly dogmatic in their ideology now.
As for PPE, if we insist on structuring public health care as if it were a for-profit business, even without privatization the instinct to pad the bottom line by purchasing supplies from low-wage foreign suppliers will quickly reassert itself once the COVID-19 crisis ends. And in the era of globalization, private-sector operators of even proudly national enterprises are unable to resist the lure of low-cost manufacturing opportunities abroad.
Alas, the memories of capitalists are remarkably short when there’s a quick buck to be made.
So while they may advocate for a made-in-Canada solution to the vaccine shortage right now, Conservatives are likely to lose all interest the instant the COVID-19 crisis has passed, as it inevitably will.
What’s owned by the private sector is easy to break up and sell off. That’s the way the system works.
Even now in the midst of the pandemic, the Kenney government is positioning itself to lay off health-care workers as soon as possible and keep federal subsidies that might form an argument for higher wages in future out of the hands of front-line health-care workers.
Once the pandemic is over, does anyone seriously expect any Canadian Conservative government to stand in the way of a private-sector Canadian vaccine corporation offshoring manufacturing to low-cost countries in the Third World?
Of course not.
The minute memories of COVID-19 begin to fade, this Conservative clamour for domestic vaccine and PPE manufacturing will disappear as quickly as a Canadian summer.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Image credit: John Vachon/Wikimedia Commons