Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-209, which was introduced by Senator Marie-Françoise Mégie and which seeks to designate March 11 as pandemic observance day to commemorate the efforts Canadians have made and continue to make to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
I want to take this opportunity, first, to thank the senator for developing this bill and, next, to thank my colleague for Vancouver Centre for presenting the bill in the House of Commons. I would also like to thank her for her decades of service as a former minister, member of Parliament, physician and someone who knows first-hand how important it is to save lives.
A national day of observance matters. It would commemorate the people who lost their lives during the pandemic and the significant impacts we have all felt because of COVID-19. All of our lives, the lives of everyone around the world, were forever changed by the emergence of COVID-19.
Today, we mourn the tragic loss of more than 45,000 Canadians: grandparents, parents, heroes, siblings, friends and loved ones. They mattered to so many. Each of these losses cascaded through families and communities, leaving many more thousands bereaved. Because of restrictions around traditional mourning customs and rituals, heart-wrenchingly, many families were unable to even say goodbye. We did not get to be by our family member's side to hold their hands and to comfort them in their last hours. Instead, some of us said goodbye over Zoom with little or no funeral afterward. Today, COVID-19 has infected over four million Canadians.
The pandemic has had an immeasurable impact on how we work, learn, connect with family and friends and live our daily lives. All Canadians have experienced sacrifice and loss over the past years. Seniors were isolated from the ones they love. Our children missed birthday parties, friends and sports. For far too many, the virus meant the loss of their jobs or the closure of their businesses.
Our health care workers have been heroic for almost three years now, initially putting the interests of their neighbours, communities and country ahead of their own. While many of us could work from home, health care and other essential workers could not. The farmers who ensured that we had food on the table, the truck drivers who made sure that food got from the farm to the grocery stores, the grocery store workers who kept the shelves stocked, the teachers and child care workers who comforted our children, and the women and men in uniform who helped care for our most vulnerable, they worked long hours so that we could get the services and care we needed. They were the everyday heroes who we cheered on and hung signs in our windows for. We witnessed Canadians at their very best. We came together, remained strong and lent a hand to neighbours and organizations whenever possible.
It is important that we commemorate the pandemic to remember how our world changed forever and how, once again, human resilience is succeeding. This bill would create the opportunity to come together each year to honour the memory of those we lost, to recognize everyone who was impacted by COVID-19 and to pay tribute to all those who continue to work hard and make incredible sacrifices in our fight against the virus, because the pandemic is not over.
We need to be prepared to use the tools we have. The flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine help prevent people from getting seriously ill, prevent further delays in scheduled hospital care and support worn-out health care workers. Internationally, we need to close the booster gap. In low-income countries, only 35% of health care workers and 31% of older populations are fully vaccinated and boosted. We must be prepared for the next time, because there will be a next time. History is clear on this.
More than six distinct influenza pandemics and epidemics have struck in just over a century. Ebola viruses have struck over 25 times in the past five decades, and we have seen the impacts of SARS, MERS and COVID-19. Internationally, governments and private funders poured billions of dollars into building preparedness. Plans were tested and evaluated, and still COVID-19 demonstrated that the world was not sufficiently prepared.
This is the time we should all be asking why this broke down and what must change. We should also be studying the lessons learned to date from COVID-19: our state of preparedness prior to the pandemic; the impacts of COVID-19 on Canadians, business, industry, the economy and public services; the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on some communities; and what actions and investments are being made to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
We should also pay attention to antimicrobial resistance, a global crisis that threatens a century of progress in health and achievement of the sustainable development goals. Because the drivers of antimicrobial resistance lie in humans, animals, plants, food and the environment, a sustained one-health response is essential. There is no time to wait.
We should learn what we always learn during a pandemic, namely, that science, research and public health matter, and not just when we are in crisis. They are fundamental building blocks of our country, which require attention, nurturing and and support, and they cannot be neglected. We need enhanced competitive investment in science and research to keep the best and brightest in Canada.
We cannot afford to forget because we have forgotten before. In 1918-19, influenza swept the world and killed more than 50 million people, more than the number that died in all of the fighting in the First World War. Many victims were healthy young people in the prime of life. There was a shortage of medical personnel. There were no effective treatments. There were no flu vaccines, antiviral drugs, antibiotics or mechanical ventilation.
To slow the spread of the disease, governments implemented quarantine, placarded homes, closed public places and regulated and enforced mask wearing. Individual citizens closed their doors to the outside world and communicated via letter. In Canada, between 30,000 and 50,000 people died. In Montreal, the demand for transporting the dead was so great that trolley cars had to be converted into hearses that could carry 10 coffins at a time. Whole families disintegrated and young adults left behind children who were forced into orphanages. Losses to businesses were staggering. Merchants lost their livelihoods because staff were absent with flu and customers were too ill to shop. Restaurants and theatres all lost heavily.
It was one of history's deadliest pandemics, but people did not want to talk about their experience during the pandemic. Because they were reluctant to talk or write about the pandemic, future generations were not always aware of it. Historian Alfred Crosby called it the “forgotten pandemic”. People wanted to forget difficult times, move on with their lives and think about a happier future.
This time is different. There are innumerable memorial projects and memorials under way around the globe. Here in Canada, there is an obituary project to pay tribute to everyone who has died of COVID-19 and every Canadian who died of the disease abroad. It is called “They Were Loved”. That is why this bill matters: because they were loved.