Canada is concerned about reports that some governments desperate to replenish their rapidly dwindling supplies of masks and other protective equipment have resorted to seizing shipments destined to other countries or getting into cutthroat bidding wars, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday.
Radio-Canada reported Thursday that a recent shipment of masks destined for Canada was resold to the highest bidder as it was about to leave China.
Last month, a shipment of masks purchased by the provincial government of Quebec, which was transiting through Europe, reportedly arrived smaller than expected, Radio-Canada reported.
Speaking at his daily press conference outside his Ottawa home at Rideau Cottage, Trudeau said he was aware of these reports.
“Of course they are concerning,” Trudeau said. “We need to make sure that equipment that is destined for Canada gets through and stays in Canada.”
Working with Washington to secure supplies
Trudeau said he has asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to follow up on these reports.
“We are working, not just here at home but overseas as well, to ensure the equipment that Canada has ordered makes its way to Canada,” Trudeau said.
The federal government has also raised this issue with U.S. officials, he added.
“We’re working together,” Trudeau said in French. “We understand that there is a glaring need in the United States but there is a glaring need in Canada too. We’ll continue working with the United States to make sure that we have the equipment we need.”
Lessons learned from COVID-19
Health Minister Patty Hajdu admitted Wednesday that Canada “likely did not have enough” personal protective equipment in its national strategic stockpile as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world and reached Canada’s shores in January.
When asked about Hajdu’s comments, Trudeau said many governments around the world will likely be reevaluating their pandemic preparedness and contingency plans once the COVID-19 outbreak, which reached nearly one million cases globally and over 10,000 in Canada on Thursday, is over.
“We will certainly learn a lot from this experience and crisis,” Trudeau said in French. “The essential thing for us right now is to make sure that we deliver the equipment needed by our healthcare system, that we minimize the curve to make sure that we don’t end up in a situation where our hospitals are overwhelmed and our healthcare system is unable to treat people who are seriously ill because of COVID-19.”
Trudeau said about 10 million masks have arrived in the last few days and are being inspected and validated before distribution. He applauded the Canadian companies that are stepping up to refocus production on critical supplies, pointing to sports equipment manufacturer Bauer, which is turning its operation over to making face shields for health workers.
Made-in-Canada solution may be months away
Trudeau announced Tuesday that the federal government will spend up to $2 billion to procure personal protective equipment amid reports that hospitals across Canada are forced to carefully ration masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) because of the looming shortage.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Tuesday the government has ordered 157 million surgical masks and 60 million N95 masks that offer enhanced protection against viruses, such as COVID-19.
Trudeau also announced that the federal government has signed contracts with three Canadian companies to make ventilators, surgical masks, test kits and other medical supplies.
However, with no domestic production capability for N95 masks, it could be weeks or even months until Canada begins producing its own masks.
And that is forcing Ottawa to compete with other countries for the limited supply of protective equipment on international markets, where competition could be fierce.
Cutthroat competition for scarce protective equipment
Renaud Muselier, head of the French region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, recounted to TV channel France RT on Wednesday how American buyers snatched a shipment of four million masks destined to France by overbidding French officials, paying triple the price in cash, just as the plane was about to leave China.
France, in turn, has reportedly seized six million masks from the Swedish company Mölnlycke, one of the main distributors of protective equipment in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced in early March that he was requisitioning “all stocks and the production of protective masks” for distribution to medical personnel and French people infected with COVID-19.
“We are working I would say 24 hours, around the clock, trying to procure equipment in a global situation where equipment is extremely tight,” Hajdu said Wednesday.
“Our government has the money, we have the will, we have the workforce, and everybody’s focus is firmly on getting PPE.”
With files from CBC News