Bob Rae is a former premier of Ontario. Mel Cappe is a former clerk of the Privy Council. They are currently professors in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Canadians are facing the most serious economic and social crisis since the end of the Second World War. It affects us all, wherever we live in the country. It also touches us as members of a global community that is being challenged by the double tsunami of a health pandemic and the risks of economic collapse.
Together with most other governments, and international agencies like the World Health Organization, the federal and provincial governments have identified fighting the disease and saving lives as the first priority. This means effective strategies like physical distancing, staying at home and stressing what steps we all must take as individuals. We also need to mobilize assistance to hospital staff, doctors and nurses.
This effort is far from over – we have not yet been able to bend and flatten the curve. But that is no reason to stop in these critical efforts. It is our battle with the virus that will determine the timing of other responses. Research and ingenuity will help us. Testing for antibodies may show who has developed immunity and who has not. Better treatments are always possible.
We could also benefit from the help of foreign-trained doctors and nurses who could be enlisted to assist those currently on the front lines of treatment. This has been a long-standing issue in Canada. There should be ways to put knowledgeable people in Canada from other countries who have worked in hospitals elsewhere to help us when we need it.
A health crisis does not mean economic collapse. While we must keep our eyes firmly on the fight against the disease, we need to do everything we can to maintain the economic and social ties that are so important. We can’t just pick up the pieces in two or three months. We need to keep the pieces together.
The federal government has the best fiscal position among G7 countries. Our relatively low debt-to-GDP ratio was built to allow us to face a crisis. Now is the time to use it. Running deficits is not, in the present circumstances, as large a problem as letting the economy wallow in depression. We are all Keynesians now.
Good employers have invested in their employees. The government is right to encourage businesses to keep people working and connected to their jobs. It will now need to turn its attention to the cultural and non-profit sectors, as well as municipalities, universities and hospitals.
We should finance deferral of payments for housing. People with mortgages and rental payments due need cash now. The government should introduce a COVID-19 bond to allow financial institutions to fund home-equity loans at zero interest. For renters, the government could provide access to these bonds to finance rent owed, again at zero interest. Deferring rent and mortgage payments can be financed in the short term by governments. It is not rent or mortgage forgiveness.
For the medium-term and the recovery phase, government should finance investment in infrastructure on an even larger scale than it has in the past. Municipalities and provinces have projects that are ready to be financed. It is vital to get the money out the door for the later spring and summer.
For the recovery, the government will need much advice beyond that of the professional public service. It should create an advisory committee composed of leaders from the business, academic and voluntary sectors.
The crisis has revealed stresses and strains in the federation. All governments are being affected by dramatic losses in revenues, but, as with a virus, the impact is not universally the same. Some economies are more robust than others. These issues cannot be allowed to fester. They will need to be addressed. So too the continuing inequalities affecting Indigenous people and communities as well as the homeless and others deeply marginalized now stare us in the face.
The Prime Minister has very rightly observed that this is a global challenge, and Canada will need to reject isolationist approaches. Just as the crisis starkly reveals our own vulnerabilities, it does the same at an international level. Those living in refugee camps and urban slums around the world do not have the luxury of physical distancing. We cannot fix these problems quickly, but neither should we shirk our responsibilities as part of global community that will need our leadership, our voice and our financial commitment.
What we are facing will require fulsome and open debate about public-policy options and the role of all of our institutions in helping to ensure a better future. This debate is not about idle criticism or negative thinking; it is about appreciating that we are in uncharted territory. The ways we have done things in the past do not necessarily serve as guideposts to what we need to do now. We are at a decisive moment that will determine our collective future. We cannot afford to fail.
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