Last week saw provincial governments begin implementing plans to restart the economy and ease restrictions that have confined millions to their homes. Some provinces are being more cautious than others.
Quebec, the hardest hit province by far, has chosen to gamble. Its curve of new infections appears to finally be turning down, but its number of cases and deaths remains far above the rest of Canada. And at least half of those cases, and almost two-thirds of deaths, are in Montreal, making it one of the most infected cities in North America.
Nevertheless, the government reopened daycare facilities and primary schools off the island of Montreal last week, the only province to return kids to classrooms. Schools in Montreal will remain closed until September, but daycares on the island will reopen on June 1. The province also aims to put almost half a million people back to work in retail, construction and manufacturing by the end of May, albeit with physical-distancing restrictions.
Ontario, Canada’s second-worst hit province, is being more cautious.
Retail outlets that are not inside malls and some residential construction sites will reopen as of Tuesday. Golf courses, marinas, campgrounds and pet kennels reopened in time for the Victoria Day long weekend.
But the return to school remains on hold. Premier Doug Ford doesn’t want to take his foot off the physical-distancing brake until it’s clear that the number of new cases of COVID-19 are low (they’re not yet) and decreasing (they appear to be), and that Ontario’s health system is equipped to handle any new wave of infections.
The different approaches by the two largest provinces, which together account for 84 per cent of Canada’s known coronavirus infections, are indicative of the tension between preventing a new surge in infections by imposing physical distancing and economic lockdown, and turning the economic growth curve in a positive direction, which can only happen to the degree that measures as eased.
But those economically constricting measures can only be eased to the degree that the curve is flattened. It all comes down to the virus fight.
A small alphabet of letters and symbols is being used to describe the various ways in which the economy might bounce back. The one most hoped for is the V-shaped recovery, in which the plummet caused by the pandemic is matched by an equally sharp pop back to where the economy was at the start of this year.
A more likely scenario, given the fact that new COVID-19 outbreaks are cropping up in Germany, China and Lebanon after governments there eased restrictions, may be one shaped like a capital W. That would mean a series of economic stops and starts, as governments lift restrictions on people’s movement, but are then obliged to reintroduce them, again and again, if infections spike. Not ideal.
Another less-than-ideal possibility: that the sharp economic downturn will be followed by a long, slow recovery, leaving a chart of economic activity that looks like the famous Nike “swoosh” logo. Absent the right policies for stimulating the economy and fighting the pandemic, a swoosh could be in any country’s future.
The worst-case scenario would be an L-shaped recovery, where the flattened economy sits at the bottom of its descent and stubbornly remains there.
However, it’s important to remember that predicting the course of the economy is not like forecasting the weather. The level of economic growth is dependent on the course of the virus – and both are, to great extent, within our control. Government decisions, and our collective actions, will decide whether tomorrow’s weather is sunny, or not.
We have said it before and we will say it again: To ensure clear skies ahead, Canada needs a lot more testing, better testing, faster testing and the ability to quickly do contact tracing on a massive scale. That this hasn’t happened yet is becoming a source of national exasperation. Canada remains way too far behind on the one issue that is critical for reviving the economy while keeping the virus in check.
Flattening the virus, while upwardly curving the flatlining economy, is now the most important job of government.
That will also require a no-expenses-spared effort to create a COVID-19 vaccine in record time. To turn a phrase on its head, you can’t spell V without a vaccine.
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