The Canadian Press/Jason Franson
Opinion

A tech CEO’s call to arms against an invisible enemy

Editor’s note: In the two and a half years of The Logic’s existence, we have never run an op-ed. That has been by design. We didn’t want this publication’s identity to be defined by anything other than our reporting and analysis. 

That remains the case today. However, in the COVID-19 pandemic, we are at war with an invisible enemy, and war efforts require collective will and community action. I was reminded of this by Borrowell CEO Andrew Graham, who asked me earlier this week, “What can I do to help?”  

And so, as a starting point, I am ceding my column inches this week to Andrew, to kickstart and amplify a conversation that is taking place in Canada’s tech community and beyond.

***

The past fews days have seen both light and darkness in the United States, with the hopeful swearing-in of a new president juxtaposed against the grim milestone of 400,000 people killed by COVID-19. Here in Canada, the toll from the pandemic continues to mount, too.

At Borrowell, the company I lead, we’ve been seeing the economic effects of the pandemic every day. Canadians use us to monitor and improve their finances—tasks that have become more urgent for many since lockdowns began last March. We’ve heard from people despairing that they’ll miss payments on their credit cards or mortgages, or who aren’t able to pay rent.

Nearly one in three of our users who responded to a survey last year said that they were losing sleep because of financial stress caused by COVID.

Thankfully, the new year has brought hope in the form of vaccines. As the evidence of their effectiveness has mounted, it’s become clear that, ultimately, they are the only way to beat COVID. Lockdowns, social distancing and economic supports buy us time and minimize damage. But the only true escape from the virus is to vaccinate a large portion of the population against it.

So it’s been frustrating to watch the slow start to vaccinations in Canada. We’re behind the pace set by many other wealthy countries. Exhibit A is Israel, which has become the poster child for vaccination success, for good reason: over a quarter of its population, including more than 80 per cent of those aged 70 or older, have received at least one dose of vaccine. In Canada, only two per cent have.

Some dismiss Israel as an outlier, and not a good benchmark for Canada. It’s a small country with a small population. But even countries more similar to us, countries against which we frequently benchmark ourselves in other spheres, are ahead. The U.K. has delivered four times as many doses per capita than we have. Even the U.S., frequently criticized for a lackluster pandemic response under former president Donald Trump, has managed about two and a half times Canada’s rate. While we have deals to buy a large number of vaccine doses—over four courses of vaccine per person, more than any other country—other countries are receiving their shipments much sooner.

Why are we behind? It’s hard not to wonder whether our Canadian tendencies to be nice and play by the rules hurt us. Other countries ordered sooner and made richer offers to the drugmakers, both in terms of money and data. Israel is reportedly paying double per dose and, crucially, exchanging reams of data on vaccine performance in its population for unparalleled early access. Doubtless, politics and power matter, as well. When Pfizer told the European Union that deliveries would be delayed due to an effort to increase production capacity at its Belgian plant—delaying shipments to Canada, as well—Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, “immediately” picked up the phone and got Pfizer’s CEO on the line; the drugmaker confirmed that shipments to Europe would resume, while those to Canada would not. Israel’s prime minister has bragged that he’s spoken to Pfizer’s CEO 17 times. (Canada has belatedly gotten into this game, with the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and the Ontario premier all placing calls to top Pfizer executives in recent days.)

The result is that, according to the federal government, three million people will be vaccinated by the end of March, and everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be given jabs by the end of September. We should not be satisfied with this outcome, which looks to put us months behind other countries. With nearly 150 people on average a day dying from COVID and pandemic-related spending by the federal government alone estimated at nearly a billion dollars a day, getting more people vaccinated sooner means lives saved, small-business bankruptcies averted and the debt burden lessened.

So what needs to happen? First, we must set a more ambitious target for vaccinations. As tech CEOs, we understand the power of setting big goals and rallying everyone around them. Government can do this, too—think of John F. Kennedy promising to put a man on the moon in just a matter of years. Our moonshot should be launched by the prime minister and provincial and territorial premiers, together, with a commitment to do whatever it takes to get more Canadians vaccinated faster. President Joe Biden has promised 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. The equivalent here would be about 11 million in that time.

Second, while we can’t create supply that doesn’t exist, we can ensure that we’re reviewing and approving new vaccines with urgency. For example, AstraZeneca’s cheaper and easier-to-handle vaccine has been called a “game changer” in the U.K., but has yet to be approved in Canada. We must also ramp up distribution so that every dose can be administered as quickly as possible to the right person once it arrives. We will need many more vaccination sites like the one established (and then promptly paused due to lack of supply) at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. 

Third, we need to make use of the vast resources and expertise to be found beyond government. Governments should enlist pharmacies to deliver vaccinations, as they routinely do for the flu. They should second private-sector experts in logistics and process optimization to set up vaccination centres across the country so there’s no delay in getting shots in arms once supply improves. E-commerce companies could help with distribution; this past week, Amazon offered to help the new Biden administration get vaccines across the U.S. by leveraging its vast resources. Cloudflare, co-founded by Canadian Michelle Zatlyn, is offering free software to vaccine sites to create a “digital queue” for online registrations. Toronto-based Empower Health has created a COVID test locator that will also help users locate their closest vaccination site once ready.

Our tech sector has a huge role to play and its leaders stand ready to help. The Council of Canadian Innovators, which represents domestically headquartered tech companies, released a pledge yesterday signed by nearly 60 CEOs and executives committing to fight against misinformation around vaccine safety by providing accurate public health information to company staff and paid time off to their employees in order to get vaccinated.

There is good reason to believe that we will largely tame this pandemic in 2021. The question is whether we will do it quickly, thereby saving lives and small businesses that would otherwise be lost, or whether we’ll take a slower path. Every day matters, and all of us—in business, in government and in the community—need to work with urgency and purpose.

Andrew Graham is the co-founder and CEO of Borrowell. He holds an MA in economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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