What swine flu really teaches the world

Disease, like recession and environmental threats, doesn’t respect borders

A pandemic may not be the place to look for silver linings. But amongst the grim news of the virus’s spread and its worrisome transmission from a farm worker to a herd of pigs in Alberta, the swine flu scare does contain some useful truths.

Consider the government response in Canada. Compared to the panicked uncertainty that marked the SARS epidemic, this time around the reaction has been coherent and coordinated. The federal government has smoothly taken control of the issue; in 2003 it was up to Toronto Public Health to fill the vacuum left by the confusion of other levels of government.

Clearly the whole country learned some important lessons from SARS. But today’s coordination of response goes far beyond our borders. And, as such, it marks an important step in broad integration and mutual support across North America.

A key component of this process has been the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Established in 2005 between Mexico, the United States and Canada as a response to 9/11, the SPP provides for greater trilateral coordination and information sharing. As such, it has become the latest bogeyman for closed-border nationalist groups such as the Council of Canadians, who see it as a sellout of our sovereignty. The Toronto Star dutifully calls it “ultrasecret” and “NAFTA on steroids.”

But while even supporters will agree the SPP has not eliminated friction over trade issues or border security, it is having a major and positive impact on the swine flu crisis.

The “North American Plan for Avian & Pandemic Influenza” was an SPP initiative unveiled in August 2007 at Montebello, Que. This rather un-secret agreement establishes a deep level of inter-agency co-operation between the countries. This is why Canadian scientists have been on the ground in Mexico as part of a trilateral epidemiological team. It is the reason the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg has been testing samples from Mexico since mid-April. Its protocols allowed for the relatively quick identification of, and response to, the new virus.

All this stands in sharp contrast to other reactions around the globe. Recall that China originally treated its outbreak of SARS as a state secret. This time around it has forcibly quarantined foreigners, including Canadians. Canadian pork has been banned by dozens of countries, and Egypt recently announced a pointless nationwide hog slaughter. None of this could be considered coherent or coordinated.

Despite its existing borders, North America is really one seamless system and ought to be treated as such. Economic recession, the environment, crime, disease—these are all issues that pay no attention to national boundaries, and can only be properly dealt with on an international basis. The SPP is part of recognizing this fact. And it’ s paying dividends for all Canadians.

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