We live in unprecedented times. The global community has been broadsided by a pandemic that has upended our lives socially, physically, psychologically, and financially.
As Canadian provinces begin re-emerging from the shutdown, it’s important to appreciate that the world as we know it will never be the same. We can’t go back to the past—and we don’t have to.
The impacts of COVID-19 are so profound that even re-emergence won’t look like previous recent shocks to the economic system. It won’t look like 9/11. It won’t look like the 2008-09 global economic collapse.
This time it’s different, because it’s intertwined with a global public health threat that de-centres the economy and necessarily re-centres the public good.
The old paradigm that prioritized economic growth above population and community wellbeing has become a massive casualty of the pandemic.
COVID-19 exposed an already fragile ecosystem
COVID-19 has exposed what many of us already knew: public health is the key driver of everything, from community wellbeing to a thriving economy. If ever there was a time to embrace a Health-in-All-Policies approach to government decision-making, it is now.
COVID-19 has exposed the short-sightedness of austerity budgeting, where governments prioritized tax cuts over needed investments in public services—in health and mental health, education, child care, social supports, affordable housing, public transit, long-term care, and more. Decades of government cuts removed the layers of protection that should have already been there for us to weather the COVID-19 storm. Governments that respond to re-emergence with more belt-tightening are doing more harm than good.
COVID-19 has exposed how profit should not be a motive for basic services, such as long-term care. It has also exposed weak links in the supply chain and the need to ensure domestic supply chains that are resilient and promote local inclusive economic initiatives. It is showing us that some services should be in public hands, not for profit.
The pandemic has also exposed underlying structural inequities that have long existed but went ignored: inequities based on income, race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and postal code (where you live). Those inequities interconnect to create health inequities, to limit life chances for those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, and low-income. A crisis like COVID-19 only serves to magnify and deepend those inequalities.
As we gradually re-emerge—likely in waves—from the pandemic, it’s up to us to learn the lessons of COVID-19 and ensure recovery efforts don’t exacerbate these existing inequities. It is time, alas, to address the root causes of these inequities. Those root causes were embedded in a neoliberal world order that put profit motive ahead of people and the planet. Our ways of knowing are changing. A major reset is in order.
There will be challenges, and risks, along the way. There is the risk that we turn inward, or that power brokers will exploit the crisis to try to return to a “normal” that wasn’t working for the majority; or that we slip into a surveillance society—policed in the name of public health and safety. We must guard against these risks, exercise our democratic and human rights, and hold the powerful to account. And, as we move from response to recovery phase, it’s up to us to re-think the system, to re-imagine what a just society looks like.
A just recovery is paramount
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of “free market” thinking. It has exposed how vulnerable too many people and businesses are to shocks—and not just health shocks; they’re vulnerable to global economic and climate change shocks too. As we re-emerge and rebuild, it is time to re-think the role of the market—its influence on public policy and the structural aspects of the market that reinforce inequities.
As we learn of mass outbreaks in meat plants and concerns of crowded working conditions in factories, COVID-19 has exposed the importance of a stringently regulated labour market, with robust worker protections.
It has exposed the need for decent work that pays a living wage, at minimum, and provides paid sick days and benefits. The need for better automatic stabilizers for workers who lose their job or have their hours reduced became crystal clear at the start of the pandemic, where the long-known limitations of Employment Insurance necessitated the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.
There can be no going back to the old system, which failed to meet the needs of the modern labour market even before the arrival of the pandemic. Nor can we continue to ignore the need for a basic income standard, better support for people who work in the service, retail, accommodation, arts and culture, and caring sectors, and the regulation of “sharing economy” work.
Wellbeing. Equality. Inclusion. Resilience. Sustainability. People and planet before profits.
These are key principles that should guide us as we recover, reset, and rebuild.
Beyond principles, a shift in paradigm also requires a shift in how governments make decisions. That shift will require greater intergovernmental and cross-party cooperation; it will require decision-making that leans more heavily on consensus rather than partisan sniping. It will also require greater input from the public, from civil society organizations, from grassroots movements, from workers and unions, from marginalized and disadvantaged communities who have been disproportionately impacted by the old system and by the pandemic.
Governments are already acting boldly, in ways that no one could have predicted. We are learning that governments can, indeed, live with debt—as long as it’s to protect the public good. It’s a lesson we’ll need to remember moving forward, especially as the austerity hawks emerge.
But to fully recover from this major shock to the system, an even bolder, more coherent agenda—the people’s agenda—is possible. We have just commonly agreed, in the blink of an eye, that our whole way of life must radically change to protect each other from an invisible virus. Most of us complied, as an act of social solidarity, to keep each other safe.
Let us not forget that we are capable of putting the needs of the many above the demands of the few.
Let us not forget, too, that there were those who could not quarantine—those who served on the front lines, those who kept our food supply chain going, those who are poor, homeless, who couldn’t shelter down. Supports and protections for them must be a top priority as we move forward.
Elements of a bold agenda
We have learned from this pandemic the value of science, health experts, and evidence-based decision-making. That can be hardwired into our decision-making DNA, drawing on the social determinants of health to inform a Health-in-All-Policies approach to policy making and budget setting at all jurisdictional levels.
Wellbeing budgets, which balance considerations of public and community health, environmental sustainability, and economic inclusiveness should become public policy standard.
It is also long past time that we address income inequality, with robust redistribution initiatives, strong public and social service supports that are stigma-free, and measures to combat racism, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination against the poor, those with disabilities, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged.
Adopting an inclusive economy approach to resetting the economy—one that prioritizes the role of public anchor institutions in creating decent work and creating resilient local supply chains—will leave us stronger, healthier, and more united. Working with small- and medium-sized businesses to convert into worker-owned enterprises as part of an economic reset will pay dividends for decades. And re-examining which services should be in public hands, to ensure public health and safety, is also in order. Take, for example, long-term care.
Preventing future global supply chain breakdowns by creating a manufacturing revival for health supplies and other necessities can be part of re-igniting an economy that was already showing vulnerabilities. Strengthening community-level food systems and mainstreet economies, while enacting policy to break up and prevent corporate monopolies, would signal a more inclusive approach to economic growth. This includes a focus on trade justice, as global supply chains come under new scrutiny.
Investing in green initiatives should be part of a massive effort to transform the economy so that it can weather not only a pandemic, but also catastrophic climate change. This is our moment for a green new deal.
Redefining what is essential work, including how we value that work and how essential workers can be assured decent working conditions, is critical moving forward—including vulnerable and disadvantaged workers, such as temporary foreign workers and migrant workers who are fortifying our food supply chain.
Moving towards a caring economy, where we value and prioritize investments and protections in health care, mental health care, child care, long-term care, pharmacare, dental care, eye care. For too long, these services have been undervalued. No more.
Ensuring greater support for municipalities, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic, is also critically important—with a priority on fostering healthy municipalities, spaces designed for public health and safety, pedestrians, and green transportation. Some municipalities will find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy due to the pandemic. The reality calls for a new funding relationship with senior levels of government.
Sheltering in place to keep safe from COVID-19 revealed the strained nature of Canada’s housing system. It necessitates creating an affordable housing guarantee within a tightly regulated rental market would focus on ensuring safe accommodations for everyone—including those with low incomes, seniors, people living with disabilities, the homeless, women fleeing domestic violence, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers.
The food supply chain is also proving to be fragile in some cases, and getting food to those who need it most became a major challenge at the start of this pandemic. Moving forward, Canada needs to re-think its food system to ensure everyone is guaranteed food security and to protect our food supply chain.
Re-regulating and adequately funding all services that affect public health—including long-term care, seniors’ homes, and child care centres—will make us more resilient to future shocks and is simply the humane thing to do.
Seriously investing in mental health interventions will be key. COVID-19 has presented us with multiple mental health challenges. Anxiety about a virus we cannot see or predict. Additional strain for people suffering from depression and the psychological consequences of prolonged isolation—lack of physical human contact—during a pandemic. Children and youth whose routines have been disrupted, separated from their friends, missing out on the social dynamics of growing up in a non-pandemic youth life. Will we re-emerge as confident in the social world as before COVID-19? Will we suffer from mass agoraphobia and cling to home? Before COVID-19, Canada was just beginning a conversation about the lack of a coordinated, fully funded mental health system that is affordable and easily accessible. COVID-19 means we have to take this conversation from talk to action, and fast.
Students have not only had their academic lives interrupted by the pandemic, COVID-19 could end up deepening existing inequalities in numerous ways: elementary and high school students who were already falling behind academically might struggle to pick it back up; college and university students might be financially challenged to continue their academic studies; students might graduate into a closed labour market, blocking their career path. This will require a range of policy interventions that include, but are not limited to, more affordable tuition fees and student debt forgiveness, greater access to skills training and opportunities through internships and community benefit agreements.
Households already faced a high debt-to-GDP ratio before the pandemic hit. Regulations to put a cap on interest rates and to crack down on payday lenders could mean the difference between surviving or going bankrupt. Student debt forgiveness for those who remain unemployed for a prolonged period of time would make a big difference in their future. And government debt will necessarily be a part of the new normal for a long time to come; debt cannot be used as an excuse to return to austerity budgeting—there is far too much to do to stabilize our society during, and long after, this pandemic.
Consumerism is transmuting: Grocery stores are the new retail epicentre, and yet there’s nothing social about this experience at all. The grocery trip has become something to endure as we play “an epidemiological game of chance”, hoping fellow grocers observe proper physical distancing and that the stores themselves are taking every precaution to protect the public. Meanwhile, people are relying more upon delivery, but they’re doing without some of the hallmarks of a consumerist economy. We’ve gone without trips to the hair salon, the mani-pedi, clothing shopping. People are coming to terms with “going gray”, with COVID haircuts. Sweat pants and comfy clothes are becoming the new daily wardrobe. Sure, takeout and delivery are still a thing, but will “retail therapy” survive the test of COVID time? As we lean deeply into self-isolation, are we asking ourselves if we really need a closet full of new clothes? Can we be satisfied with just enough? Can we ensure retail and service sector workers get the job protections they deserve?
Last, but certainly not least, re-stabilizing public revenues—tax fairness, progressive taxation—to correct decades of tax cuts and to pay for the policies and programming that will leave us better prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead is paramount. We can no longer skirt this necessity; we have reached the end of the road for tax cut agendas that sacrifice needed public services and social supports.
These are elements of a more just, equitable, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Canada. This is by no means an exhaustive blueprint. There is even more than this that will need to be re-imagined in order to restore and protect the wellbeing of Canadians and their communities. But this is the start of a conversation that is most critical to re-emergence.
Trish Hennessy is director of Upstream, which focuses on population and community wellbeing, and senior communications strategist with the CCPA.
Special thanks to the team of experts at the CCPA for their input into this essay, and to Punam Khosla and Alex Himelfarb for their insightful input.