By Ian Pattison
As science plunges ahead trying to defeat the coronavirus while the rest of us hide from it, a furious battle is occurring over whether to ease up or continue to lock down. The nexus is the economy. And since our way of life depends on earning, spending and investing money, the state of the economy is central to our well-being.
That has never been so glaringly apparent as during this pandemic. Governments that once were spending control freaks, worrying about debt and deficits, are now furiously doling out cash to keep people and businesses from financial ruin. Retailers and entire industries are on pins and needles waiting for that tipping point where things can begin to open up again and purchasing power starts to make some headway.
But when does that happen? When should it happen? Listen to the science is the prevailing advice. But science normally takes years to perfect a new vaccine and the world can’t wait that long to get back to business. Researchers are in overdrive but the earliest prediction of a vaccine is by the fall. Again, too long.
And so, governments are testing the waters by gradually allowing various sectors of the economy to re-open with employee protection said to be at the forefront. But with the virus throwing surprises left and right, and the state of human testing and tracking far behind where they need to be, this amounts to an incredible experiment. In essence, government and industry are betting lives against dollars.
Despite their own admissions that letting up too much and too soon could spark a second, more virulent attack of COVID-19, governments are unwilling to keep society on lockdown indefinitely, and rightly so. Our collective mental health is suffering alongside the fortunes of every business in our communities. For our sanity and their survival, we need to get back out there to congregate and spend.
But what if most people remain wary? If enough consumers suspect that it isn’t yet safe to emerge from their homes into the marketplace, the hoped-for recovery will be sluggish at best. People need to get groceries but furtive glances at other shoppers deemed to be too close suggest that shopping for anything but essentials will happen very slowly.
Meantime, there is only so much money. Debt is growing, in households, the provinces and in Ottawa. The federal government has been generous in allocating funds to essential services. Provinces and municipalities have done what they can. But sooner rather than later, as the treasury withers, there are going to have to be conditions placed upon further federal largesse. Canada is a decentralized democracy and provinces don’t like being told what to do by Ottawa. Witness the reception the carbon tax received in some jurisdictions.
For now the planning continues into how to respond to what is quite literally a matter of life and death. Governments are quietly frightened that things could go wrong. Well, not all governments. U.S. President Donald Trump can’t wait to get the American economy revved up again and is clearly willing to sacrifice lives to do so. He knows that his November election chances depend on it. And he wants to reward his business friends in the process.
Trump is no fan of the public service. He believes that private enterprise will always do more, better and cheaper than the experts in government who are there largely out of a sense of service, not profit. And so, not long after parading a group of fawning pharmaceutical industry titans before the national media as vaccine saviours in waiting, Trump announced this week plans to disband the coronavirus task force with its medical advisors, and form the “Opening Our Country Task Force,” which consists of more than 200 CEOs to advise the administration on a return to economic activity.
Meanwhile, a confusing “shadow task force” of business advisors chaired by Trump son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner has devolved into junk status.
Trump is gambling here, and not just by giving cronies and family members jobs for which they are horribly unqualified. He’s rejected the Centres for Disease Control guidelines on how schools, churches, restaurants and other establishments should open. Too “prescriptive,” said the White House.
After signalling that he wanted states to re-open, 43 are doing so, yet most do not meet the Trump administration’s own criteria of two weeks of sustained reduction in cases.
On this side of the border, provinces are tip-toeing into this uncharted water, each at a different rate, and all hoping against hope that the viral curve won’t spring upward again forcing a depressing return to quarantine.
Within provinces there are differing rates of infection. The incidence of COVID-19 in most of southern Ontario is five to six times higher than it is here in the Northwest. In Thunder Bay district at this writing there are just eight active cases.
Premier Doug Ford was asked this week by authorities in Kingston, where infection is a quarter of that in and around Toronto, if he’d authorize a regional approach to easing restrictions. "The answer's no," Ford said. "We have to run the province as one unit."
Asked why, he offered this south-centric answer: "If they loosen up restrictions in one area, guess where all the people from Toronto and the GTA are going, if they want to go have dinner? They're all going to flock to Kingston . . . ."
Perhaps someone should suggest to the premier that they’re not likely to come 1,300 km to have dinner in Thunder Bay even with its many fine restaurants. Once the criteria allow for it, Thunder Bay and region should be able to take tentative steps toward a more normal life. Our health unit and hospital have been good at managing this crisis and residents have mostly been good at following their advice. Let’s do this, one careful step at a time.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.