Canada is at war. It’s a war that is going to be costly, though how costly is impossible to say. It may also be long.
However, the right choices and the right spending, deployed wisely and quickly, stand an excellent chance of shortening the war’s length, and Canada’s losses.
The war against COVID-19, and its associated recession, is a war on two fronts – health and economics. Those fronts are interconnected. Measures such as social distancing, taken to slow the spread of the virus, are necessary. But they’re also a powerful sedative to business activity. The virus and the fight against it are causing acute economic pain, which has to be treated and minimized. But the sooner the health challenge posed by the virus is beaten back, the sooner the economy can get off the sedatives and painkillers, and return from bed rest to active life.
The bottom line is that winning the economic battle is predicated on winning the health war. The virus is the root cause of the current troubles. The recession is a symptom.
Ottawa and the provinces have to lessen the symptoms, while tackling the underlying cause.
On Wednesday, the Trudeau government announced its economic pain-mitigation measures – $27.4-billion in income support for individuals and businesses, and $55-billion in taxes temporarily deferred. These measures are reasonable and targeted, but unless victory on the health front comes soon, they are only the opening moves of the war.
As with a human patient suffering from an underlying medical issue, economic pain management is essential, lest the economy grow sicker. However, there are two other areas in which government must act – first to tackle COVID-19, the underlying cause of all this, and then to get the economy back to full employment.
Economic stimulus measures, possibly on a greater scale than the tens of billions of dollars in deficit spending Ottawa and the provinces deployed after the Great Recession of 2008-09, may be needed. The fiscal medicine – whether that’s a very heavy dose of new spending, or something lighter – will have to be calibrated to the state of the economy. But it can’t be fully deployed, and the economy can’t be quickly returned to health and growth, until the underlying health issue has been addressed.
This is an economic crisis caused by a health crisis. That’s why Ottawa’s next move should be on the health front. It’s where the war will be decided.
One part of the battle is about communication. The other part is about action.
There needs to be better communication with Canadians about what health resources their country has for the battle to come. If those resources are insufficient, in individual provinces or nationwide, the federal government has to take the lead on funding the necessary fixes.
A flight to safety among the world’s investors allows Ottawa to borrow at exceptionally low rates. That gives Ottawa the means to fund the lion’s share of an (otherwise largely provincial) response to the health emergency.
Ottawa also needs to take the lead on telling Canadians how ready this country is, or isn’t. Level with us. We can take bad news, because it can be made good. The only things that can’t be fixed are defects nobody knows about.
In Italy, the health-care system was overwhelmed with a surge of patients sick enough to need hospitalization. Is Canada prepared for that possibility?
Do we have enough hospital space and enough beds? Our cities suddenly have rather a lot of empty hotels and vacant convention centres. Do any of these need to be repurposed?
Does Canada have enough essential equipment, from testing kits to ventilators? Canadians need to know. And if the answers aren’t right, can industries with underused production lines be incentivized to switch to manufacturing what’s needed – as this country’s factories did to win the Second World War, when they quickly retooled from cars and consumer goods to machine guns and tanks?
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to… ride out the storm of war.” That was Winston Churchill, on June 4, 1940.
Let us be certain nothing is neglected. Let us be sure the best arrangements are being made.