Comment: COVID-19 pandemic – lessons to keep

Most of us can’t wait to turn the page on the pandemic, but we’ve also learned a lot

The threat of disease outbreaks is why we are seeing provincial governments across the country pass legislation that imposes penalties for those who trespass onto farm operations.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of pandemic lockdowns, COVID-19 fatigue has set in for most.

We want to see our families again. We want to have a barbecue with our neighbours. We want to be able to meet a group of friends at a restaurant.

While we don’t want to talk about positives coming out of the COVID-19 experience, there are lessons for our relationship to agriculture and food that need to be remembered after the pandemic response ends.

One of the foremost lessons we have learned during this pandemic is the importance of people on the front lines. There are too many “front lines” to list. I am grateful for them all.

I would like to focus on the front-line workers of Canada’s food supply. Being able to put food on the table depends upon staff at grocery stores being willing to come to work every day despite the risk of infection. Having full grocery shelves would not be possible without truckers who are willing to make the long haul, even with restaurants and rest facilities closed across the country. Farmers from coast to coast continue to produce healthy and nutritious food. We would be lost without them.

We cannot forget the workers who keep our processing plants running. These jobs might have been taken for granted in the past, but we need to acknowledge their importance. It would only be a matter of days before meat counters were empty if processing plants were forced to close due to labour shortages.

Canada’s agriculture supply chains have proven to be incredibly resilient during the pandemic. Demand from domestic consumers continues to be met, and we are seeing record export levels for agriculture commodities as countries around the world turn to Canada as a reliable supplier. We should honour the people who have created and maintain this reliability. We can do this by giving priority vaccine access to those employed in critical infrastructure and essential services.

The second key lesson from COVID-19 is the importance of biosecurity. How do you stop a pandemic? (No this is not the beginning of a bad joke.) The best way is to prevent the virus from spreading from one host to another. We have spent a year physical distancing, limiting contacts outside of our home, not travelling, and wearing masks. These lessons apply to raising livestock too.

Foreign diseases are one of the biggest threats to the animals under producers’ care. Like COVID-19, these diseases are spread from contact with someone who has travelled to an infection zone, had contact with infected animals, and contaminated equipment, feed, and clothing.

African swine fever (ASF) is one example of a virus that has devastated the pork industry around the world. For the past 15 years, the disease has spread across Africa, central Asia, and several European countries. Some estimate that more than 200 million pigs in China were lost in the first year of the outbreak there. There is no cure for the disease and there is no vaccine to protect animals.

How do we keep ASF out of the Canadian swine population? Through rigorous adherence to biosecurity protocols, similar to steps taken to limit the spread of COVID-19. Animals that are brought into barns are screened to be disease free, as is the feed used to raise healthy animals. Pork producers also restrict contact with the outside world through carefully limiting barn access to only those who provide animal care.

The threat of disease outbreaks is why we are seeing provincial governments across the country pass legislation that imposes penalties for those who trespass onto farm operations. This legislation is a necessary step to protect animals, and helps producers ensure that disease outbreaks like ASF do not happen.

Gratitude for front-line workers who keep our grocery shelves full. Understanding the reasons for enforcement of strict biosecurity requirements that keep livestock safe from devastating foreign animal diseases.

These are two lessons from the global pandemic that should not be forgotten after we are vaccinated, and the lockdowns are finally lifted.

Cam Dahl is general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council.

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