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Knowledge, expertise and hope can spread just as quickly as a virus

This column is an opinion by Mark Sakamoto, executive vice-president of international digital health company Think Research, and author of the bestseller Forgiveness, A Gift from My Grandparents, which won CBC Canada Reads in 2018. He hosts and is the executive producer of Good People, a docuseries that explores humanity’s most pressing challenges and innovative solutions. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Across Canada, we’re all contemplating what a return to some version of our old lives is going to look like. Governments are grappling with how to make the right decisions — to move slowly enough that we don’t see an uncontrollable second wave of disease, but quickly enough to not hold down our economy unnecessarily. It’s an unenviable position to be in.

The good news is that Canada doesn’t have to do it alone.

This pandemic has highlighted how our globalized and deeply interconnected world can be so vulnerable to a virus. How quickly and widely it can spread — to devastating effect.

However, it has also shown us that our knowledge and expertise and hope can be shared just as quickly. We can, and are, looking to other jurisdictions around the world where things have gone right. We are learning from them.

In my day job, for example, I run a health technology company that specializes in creating clinical content for hospitals that can be shared and improved and then shared again. It has been incredible to see how doctors and nurses have been doing this during the pandemic. They’re taking time out of their punishingly busy days on the front lines to offer up their experience so that colleagues elsewhere can learn from it.

Hospital admission is a critical decision point, for instance. Sharing knowledge means that a hospital in St. Anthony, N.L., can learn from a hospital in Mississauga by finding out exactly what they’re doing when admitting a patient with COVID-19, and then turn around and use the information to improve their own process — and vice versa. In fact, we’ve noticed that hospitals have been sharing this same specific type of content back and forth between each other thousands of times as doctors learn more about how to best handle the disease.

A woman paints a thank you message to nurses and doctors on a boarded up shop in downtown Vancouver. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

COVID-19 has shown us exactly why we all need the curiosity and openness and, above all, the humility to be able to look at others with clear eyes, lean on their experience and learn from it. It can mean the difference between life and death.

This idea, that we can solve really tough problems by looking to other places and people that have got it right, is exactly what I wanted to explore in the new docuseries Good People. I wanted to dig into big issues we are facing today in North America — homelessness, the opioid crisis, gun violence. So we went to communities where the problems feel insurmountable, and then we went to other communities where they have found ways to wade through despair and find solutions.

We started in Hamilton, where gentrification and the slow death of manufacturing has combined to leave far too many people in that city falling between the cracks, living in tent cities with waiting lists for affordable housing that are two years long.

Mark Sakamoto (right) and then-Hamilton city councillor (now Member of Parliament) Matthew Green talk to Hamilton resident Laura Ritchie outside the tent where she lives. (Good People/CBC)

The people I met in Hamilton are strong and resilient, and what they are facing is so overwhelming that it feels crushing.

But here’s the thing — it doesn’t have to be.

I’m from Medicine Hat, Alta., a community of 63,000 people that may not be topping anyone’s list of places to look for innovation — but that would be a mistake. Because in Medicine Hat, they created a Housing First strategy that has actually made the community a Canadian leader in tackling homelessness and its devastating side effects.

City Hall ran the numbers. For every homeless person in Medicine Hat, they were paying up to $100,000 a year in social support, from shelters to law enforcement to health care. The cost of giving that same person a roof over their head: $22,000 a year.

The city saves approximately $78,000 a year for every person housed. Turns out, eradicating homelessness was not only a compassionate thing to do — it was the cheapest thing to do.

That’s not to suggest there is a one-size-fits-all solution to tackling the toughest issues we are facing. But what I’ve seen is that there is always hope, and if you approach the problem with an open mind there is usually an innovative blueprint out there to follow.

The Housing First program offers homeless people a place to live without stipulations like sobering up or counselling. 8:04

COVID-19 is an insidious disease. It is unpredictable, sneaky, deadly. But remarkably, there are already examples that are cause for hope.

In Ontario, we’ve been able to protect our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, in part by learning from the experiences of Northern Italy and New York. Among other things, they made the extremely difficult choice to cancel elective and other surgeries well in advance of the disease’s peak, and a similar approach in Ontario has kept our ICUs and ventilators clear for COVID-19 patients.

In New Brunswick and Newfoundland & Labrador, we’ve seen the government look to the “family bubble” strategy that has been such a success in New Zealand as a way to begin reopening the economy, an approach that can also provide some much-needed support for working parents. Allowing families to see each other – while maintaining social distancing with all others – reclaims some semblance of normalcy and familial cohesion. For many, theses are the bonds that are so necessary at times of crisis and uncertainty.

There are many other examples of successful approaches to medical, social and economic problems created by the COVID-19 crisis. We have been told by our public health officials that we are on the right path. But now, and in the difficult days, weeks and months of economic recovery that are ahead of us, our communities and our leaders need to ask themselves “in case we’re not doing it right, then who is?”

Then they must be open to hearing the answers — and acting on them.

If COVID-19 has laid one truth bare, it’s that we are only as strong and vibrant as the most vulnerable among us. That was true before the pandemic and it will be true after the pandemic.

We will need open hearts and open minds to address the problems on the other end of this. We will need to act together and we will need to look out for one another, perhaps in ways we never have before. The innovative solutions that we deploy against these seemingly insurmountable pandemic-related problems may just prove how capable we are at addressing all the other issues that continue to persist.

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