A worker removes the protective paper from a Plexiglas shield for the registration area at the Invista Centre in Kingston, Ont., on March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Ottawa seeks post-pandemic ideas to prepare for next major disaster

Ottawa seeks post-pandemic ideas to prepare for next major disaster

OTTAWA — The federal government is looking beyond COVID-19 to prepare for the next large-scale calamity — be it another pandemic, a tsunami or cyberattack.

In a notice posted Tuesday, Defence Research and Development Canada seeks proposals for studies, technology trials and demonstrations to identify promising ideas to lessen the severity of potential catastrophes.

The agency, an arm of National Defence, is interested in ways of addressing “high impact, low frequency” events — disasters that don’t happen often but have deep and long-lasting effects when they do occur.

The notice says these fall somewhere between relatively common events such as seasonal floods and highly improbably risks such as an asteroid hitting Earth.

They include a pandemic, major earthquake, industrial disaster or large-scale terrorist attack but also unforeseen threats posed by adoption of new technologies.

Due to their infrequency, efforts to prevent and proactively manage these kinds of incidents tend not to receive much attention or resources, “and there is evidence that governments and businesses remain unprepared for such events,” the notice says.

Understanding the threats, and how to prepare for them, will “help enhance our resilience in a post-pandemic world,” it adds.

The research agency expresses interest in two issues highlighted by COVID-19 — the desire for contactless and virtual services, and the need to bolster fragile supply chains, including the movement of goods across international borders.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a global impact in shaping perceptions of risk and has highlighted the severe effect that such an event can have on the social and economic well-being of a nation.”

At the same time, global developments are creating complex dynamics that make societies more vulnerable, the notice adds.

The research agency is looking for proposals that contribute to understanding of what seldom occurring but highly significant events mean for:

— Human security with regard to energy, food, water, public health, the environment and economy;

— Ensuring societies can bounce back from disasters;

— Communication with the public about risks and responses.

The agency also wants ideas for specific technologies to bolster preparedness for biological risks, including those flowing from climate change.

Other concerns include readiness for chemical, radiological and nuclear attacks, as well as accidental or intentional disruptions in cyberspace.

Canadian governments are responsible for many services affected by the pandemic, including screening goods and people at borders and in transportation systems, along with policing, firefighting, health care and security operations, notes the federal call for proposals.

“At the same time, governments and industry are also all facing the need to now manage and optimize the efforts of a virtual workforce.”

The agency seeks ways to improve operations through machine-learning, predictive algorithms and autonomous operations. There is also interest in options that do not involve contact for processing identity documents and registering people for services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has “exposed the fragility of supply chains and how their disruption, no matter the cause, can imperil safety and security,” the notice says.

The problem became apparent as government agencies scrambled early in the pandemic to procure protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves for health-care workers.

The research agency is seeking proposals that would make it easier to move goods across borders and bolster online encryption, as well as detect counterfeit or other suspect items.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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