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When this global health crisis finally ends, as it will one day, there will be much soul-searching about what could have been done better, and how we could have prevented the spread of the virus and the pandemic.
In Canada, one of the lessons learned may well be that mass gatherings, for whatever reason, are not a good idea when the virus is already on our doorstep.
As people in this country and around the world are being ordered to self-isolate and observe strict rules about physical distancing, and a rash of other tough measures to try to contain the spread of COVID-19, it is instructive to look back just a few weeks to see how rapidly complacency has given away to urgency, things have changed, and lessons are being learned.
In March, despite the fact that the virus was already in Canada (the first case was registered on January 25), three very large public gatherings went ahead.
Each left a COVID-19 legacy.
A dentist who attended the Pacific Dental Convention in Vancouver, held March 5 – 7, later died of suspected complications of COVID-19. According to Global News, British Columbia’s public health officer Bonnie Henry confirmed that about 20 people from British Columbia who attended the conference have tested positive for COVID-19, as have dozens from other provinces.
On March 11, six weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” and the same day that he declared COVID-19 a pandemic, dozens of doctors from western Canada assembled in Edmonton for a four-day curling bonspiel. Ten days later, CBC reported that 13 cases of COVID-19 had been linked to that event, and 11 of them were “front-line health care staff and physicians” from Saskatchewan.
The president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, Allan Woo, is one of those who contracted COVID-19 at the bonspiel. He told CBC he is communicating with patients he has been in contact with, and that his situation should be a warning to everyone.
And there was the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), which from March 1 – 4, hosted the world’s “premier mineral exploration and mining convention,” in Toronto, an annual mining extravaganza that typically brings together more than 25,000 people from more than 130 countries.
The week before it began, on February 27, Ontario registered its sixth case of COVID-19, and Canada had 13 cases. On the same day, the World Health Organization director general warned countries with their first cases of coronavirus to “act aggressively now” and “move swiftly” to contain it.
Still, PDAC organizers decided the show would go on.
PDAC 2020 drew 23,144 people from around the world, less than a 10% drop in attendance from 2019. A March 4 press release from PDAC said that this highlighted – somehow – “the resilience and innovation of the international mineral exploration and mining sector.”
The press release continued:
This is the must-attend event for anyone connected to the mineral and mining industry across the world, and marks my 33rd straight year… The PDAC Convention’s significance is now widely recognized by all levels of government who look forward to using it as an opportunity for announcements — including Prime Minister Trudeau.
As surprising as it seems in hindsight, just 10 days before Canada’s prime minister would go into self-isolation because his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had tested positive for COVID-19, and 12 days before he would announce to the nation that Canadians should not travel internationally, Justin Trudeau was at PDAC, heaping praise on Canada’s mining industry and definitely not observing social distancing.
So were other high-level government officials, including federal Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
The first PDAC cases of COVID-19
The first evidence that the coronavirus may have been spreading at the convention came on March 11, when PDAC sent an email to everyone who attended the convention. It said that an attendee had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home to Sudbury, Ontario. He was one of only 42 cases in Ontario at that point, and he was the first case in Sudbury.
The next day, PDAC sent out an update with information provided by Toronto Public Health:
- Through the investigation it has now been determined that the individual attended the Trade Show [PDAC] on March 1-3 including the Ontario Premier’s press conference held on the show floor on March 2 and the Student-Industry Networking Luncheon on March 3
- It is recommended that people who attended PDAC 2020 watch for signs and symptoms as a precautionary measure. It is possible that the person in Sudbury acquired their infection at the event. Advice for self-monitoring can be found in the fact sheet located here
The PDAC statement continued with this stock reassurance:
We will continue supporting the investigation being conducted by Public Health Sudbury & Districts and Toronto Public Health. The health and safety of PDAC 2020 participants remains our top priority. We are committed to keeping you informed and will continue to provide information as required.
Then, on March 23, PDAC contacted attendees again to say that Toronto Public Health had confirmed two more PDAC attendees had tested positive for COVID-19. As with the first case, PDAC said that these individuals had not been infectious during the convention, but that, “it is possible they acquired the virus while participating.”
PDAC also issued a statement that seemed designed to deflect any responsibility it may have had for deciding to hold the convention in the time of COVID-19:
We will continue to support investigations undertaken by health agencies, as required.
The health and safety of our attendees and staff has always been our top priority. [there is that hackneyed phrase again]. In the weeks leading up to the PDAC 2020 Convention, our team regularly consulted with Toronto Public Health to ensure all known precautionary safety measures were being taken. This is in addition to following directives from the Public Health Agency of Canada and World Health Organization.
. . .
In addition to regular health and safety procedures on-site at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, preventative measures were implemented, including frequent cleaning and disinfecting of all high-volume touchpoints, increased availability of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and additional signage to remind attendees of hygiene recommendations.
While all this may sound impressive, as I reported for the Halifax Examiner, I saw only limited signs of these precautions at PDAC, and was struck that speakers referenced the coronavirus so little, and only then to express concern about the effects it would have on the economy and the mining industry — not human health.
There were some exceptions, but most of those with whom I spoke at PDAC seemed unfazed by the risk of contracting the virus, or of taking it home to their families.
In an interview with the Investing News Network, Scott Ansel, VP Project Development at BC-headquartered Sun Peak Metals Corp was asked if he thought the coronavirus had scared too many people away, Ansel said it obviously had, but added:
…for the most part, the mining side of the world don’t get too scared of that sort of thing, and are carrying on, so yeah, it’s been good.
A dearth of details
For all the reassurances in the three messages that attendees received from PDAC, details about the investigations into possible cases of COVID-19 linked to the convention were scarce.
Between the initial email about the PDAC attendee who tested positive for COVID-19 in Sudbury and the March 23 PDAC report about two additional cases in Toronto, PDAC sent no messages to attendees.
That didn’t mean there weren’t more possible COVID-19 cases with links to PDAC.
On March 12, Halifax Today reported that eight officials from Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines who had attended PDAC were working from home, “after potentially coming into contact with a person with COVID-19.”
I emailed Shannon Kerr, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia government, and asked for confirmation that there were no cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia with links to PDAC. Kerr replied that they were “not providing that level of detail.”
When I wrote again to ask if it were safe to assume there were no cases in the province linked to PDAC, given that I had been in attendance, spoken with numerous fellow Nova Scotians there, and had not been contacted by any public health officials, I received no reply.
On March 16, TVO reported that in Ontario a woman in her 60s, who was in direct contact with the man in Sudbury who had attended the convention, had also tested positive. TVO also identified the first man as an employee for the Ontario Ministry of Mines and Northern Development, whose office was on the Laurentian University campus. After that, Laurentian became the first public university in Canada to suspend all in-person classes.
Then on March 20, the online industry site Steelguru.com reported that Toronto-based Troilus Gold Corp had “confirmed that an attendee at its PDAC breakfast reception on Tuesday March 3, 2020 has tested positive for COVID-19 and is now receiving medical attention.” As a result, the Troilus offices were closed.
From PDAC to West Africa
On March 21, Bloomberg reported that another person who attended PDAC had tested positive for COVID-19, this one on another continent.
On March 20 on his Facebook page, Oumarou Idani, minister of mines in the West African country of Burkina Faso, posted that he had tested positive “after leading a delegation to the Toronto Mines Show (PDAC 2020).” The delegation included six Burkinabe.
Aljazeera reports that Idani is one of four government ministers in Burkina Faso infected with COVID-19, and that there had been a cabinet meeting on March 11. And on March 29, that number has increased to six ministers.
It’s not clear that the other ministers contracted COVID-19 by exposure to Idani, but the timing makes that connection plausible.
The last thing that the government and people of Burkina Faso need on top of all the other enormous problems the country faces is the scourge of COVID-19. Its health facilities are completely inadequate at the best of times, which these are most definitely not.
Physical distancing and self-quarantine are impossible for many in Burkina Faso — and for many across Africa and in other developing countries — where entire families live in a single room, have no means to purchase more than enough food for the next meal (if that), and who depend on crowded buses or motorbike taxis to get to markets.
In recent years, the impoverished, semi-arid country of Burkina Faso has been trying to cope with a long list of hardships and disasters, including attacks by armed groups that have killed more than a thousand people and displaced 700,000, as well as severe land degradation and desertification, which is exacerbated by climate change for which it has zero responsibility.
And yet, for nearly four decades, Burkina Faso (along with some of its impoverished neighbours such as Mali and Niger) has been popular gold-digging ground for foreign, particularly Canadian – and also Nova Scotian – miners and mining companies.
Burkina Faso is now Africa’s fourth largest gold producer.
Fat lot of good it has done the country. In 2019 Burkina Faso ranked 182nd of 189 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.
The World Health Organization’s Jerry-Jonas Mbasha in Burkina Faso told Al Jazeera that fatality rates from COVID-19 in the country could be five to 10 times higher than the global average. It is now a West African COVID-19 hotbed, and by March 26 had 146 confirmed cases.
So if a Burkinabe minister of mines – or any of the many dozens of West Africans who attended the convention – took the virus back home to countries where self-isolation is difficult and health systems are weak, does the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada follow up on such cases, or take responsibility for them? And does it track cases outside of Ontario?
To say it’s been difficult trying to get answers to these questions would be an understatement – to the power of ten.
Tracking COVID-19 cases from PDAC
I emailed PDAC to ask whether it tracks cases outside Ontario, and whether it was aware of any additional cases elsewhere.
On my second attempt to get answers, PDAC spokesperson Kristy Kenny replied that I should contact Toronto Public Health directly with my questions.
So I did.
It took three emails to Toronto Public Health (TPH) before I received the following from spokesperson Dr. Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health:
TPH investigates individuals who live in the City of Toronto. We have been coordinating the investigation of cases related to this conference through Public Health Ontario (PHO). This includes coordination with other health units in Ontario, and also internationally through the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
If individuals who attended the conference live in other jurisdictions, they are investigated by their local public health unit.
TPH is working with PHO and the PHAC to investigate and link international travellers who attended the conference and may have contracted COVID-19. The lead for linking with international authorities is PHAC.
I then contacted the Public Health Agency of Canada – for the second time. I asked if they could shed some light on who at PHAC, if anyone, was investigating COVID-19 cases related to PDAC 2020 in provinces outside Ontario and in other countries, and if so, how many positive cases had been documented in each jurisdiction.
As of this writing, I’ve not had a reply, but given the incredible duress under which the agency currently finds itself, that is understandable. When (if) I do get an answer, I will report it.
The warnings were there
The Financial Post’s Gabriel Friedman reports that for two weeks before PDAC began, there were “daily meetings about whether to cancel because of the virus,” and that there were people among the planners who thought it should be cancelled. However, Friedman’s source said those voices were “in the minority.”
In response to my emailed question to PDAC on whether there had been consideration given to postponing or cancelling the convention, I was sent a quote from PDAC president Felix Lee, which included this statement:
At no time did Canadian health authorities recommend our event be delayed or cancelled.
As reported here, on February 26, I asked Toronto Public Health whether there was any consideration of asking PDAC to postpone the convention. The statement I received from Dr. Herveen Sachdeva, Associate Medical Officer of Health at Toronto Public Health, read:
Toronto Public Health (TPH) follows the advice, guidance and recommendations of Public Health Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada on travel restrictions and determining whether or not local events should be adjusted. The COVID-19 virus is not circulating locally; however, given the global spread, we are actively working with our City and health partners to plan. We continue to carefully monitor this situation and encourage residents, conference planners, and attendees to stay informed by regularly reviewing credible information sources.
Later the same day during a national press teleconference, I asked Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, what advice she would give anyone planning to attend the convention. Although she is an extremely articulate and knowledgeable professional who has been competently steering the country through the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks, my question seemed to have flummoxed her. Her reply:
So I think from the Public Health Agency’s perspective, we work with the provinces in providing guidance, public health guidance for managing community based events. So I think … obviously the provinces and territories or the local wherever that event is, I believe you said Toronto, would be having the advisers really try and have those planning discussions ahead of time. This one is happening very fast, it sounds like. But … looking at, you know, that this current moment in time, of course, Canada doesn’t have community transmission. We do not have, you know, outbreaks of the COVID virus in Canada. But, you know, I don’t know enough about the attendees. But again, like all travelers coming into Canada, there should be advice provided to them in terms of the monitoring of symptoms, etc. But I think that the most appropriate thing to do is, of course, for the local public health, provincial public health and the organizers to get together, use some of the guidance that’s provided and make some decisions based on the exact timing of the event, etc. And of course the public health agency is there to provide support should they require any advice or any other kind of support.
All of which suggests that no public health agency thought it necessary to cancel or postpone PDAC 2020.
And so, on March 1, the Toronto Convention Centre filled up with many thousands of people from all over the planet, to mingle and talk mining and mining investment.
There were, however, some dissenters who did speak out, and who made it known in advance that they had decided to give the convention a miss.
As the Examiner reported here, in the days leading up to PDAC 2020, some fairly high-powered industry people issued some strong warnings about the risks of going ahead with the convention.
Three days before it began, mining investment writer James West dubbed PDAC 2020 the “Coronavirus Convention.” He wrote that he would not be “going anywhere near PDAC” this year and that “throwing a massive party for 3 days in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic is just idiotic.”
On the eve of the PDAC opening, McEwen Mining CEO and chief owner Rob McEwan issued a press release saying no one from his company would be attending because of “mounting uncertainty about the spread of Covid-19.”
Bloomberg News headlined its February 27 story about PDAC and COVID-19, “A ‘Massive Petri Dish’: Virus Takes Shine Off Mining’s Big Show.” It quoted Alex Black, CEO of Vancouver-based Rio2 Ltd: “I think anyone who goes is crazy and complacent about the issue … Any mining person knows that health and safety are the most important aspects of our business.”
There was also Andy Abraham, who has attended PDAC for 30 years and who decided to stay away this year because of the risks of COVID-19. On his LinkedIn he had this to say:
There will be people who stay away this year and there are many who will attend and, hopefully, hand sanitize their way through the event and festivities. In the end nothing may happen, the bullet will be dodged, organizers and attendees will breathe a sigh of relief and head home satisfied they made the right decision.
The other prospect is what if one or a few people attending are infected and contagious. What happens if one attendee becomes ill? Tracking thousands of people here and back to their home countries becomes a much bigger problem. What happens if many attendees become ill or die? Who takes responsibility?
And there are still no answers.
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