Featured Story Rants

COVID-19: It’s critical that Canadians get back to work, too

Written by Norris McDonald

Most of the emphasis on the coronavirus fight to date has been on how to bring the spread of COVID-19 under control. I have been doing my bit. I don’t go out – except when my wife and I go to the grocery store once a week. She’s still at work; her company continues to operate but that could end at any time.

The other thing the federal government has been doing is borrowing its brains out to make sure businesses and their employees have money to survive. Yes, Ottawa has also done things like cutting the waiting time for EI. And the banks have told people to forget about paying their mortgages for awhile. They’re both “banking” on being rewarded for their altruism many times over when things settle down.

I’m writing this today because while I think all of this is commendable, the people in charge have to train their eyes on another ball. Not that their eyes are on the wrong ball – far from it, because we have to get a handle on this thing – but they have become so focused on one ball that they seem to have forgotten about another.

(This is understandable, by the way, because those “people in charge” are all either career politicians, civil servants or tenured academics. They live in a different world. It’s easy for them to order us to quarantine ourselves. To be blunt: they do not have to worry about money going into their bank accounts every second Thursday, or where their next meal will come from. The rest of us do.)

The prime minister and the minister of finance have both said this financial bailout they’re working on will have money in people’s pockets in “two or three weeks.” There is a big difference between two weeks and three weeks and that is way too late anyway.

Most people in this country live paycheque to paycheque. Officially, according to Statistics Canada, 53 per cent of all Canadians live this way and, as a result, are not prepared for a financial emergency of the kind we are experiencing. Canada’s household debt is so high it’s stupid. Okay, many of us won’t have to pay our mortgages for awhile but what about people who have to pay rent at the beginning of the month (only nine days from today), have to pay minimums on 10 credit cards, all at the limit, have four children to feed, hydro bills to pay (notice: hydro is not giving anybody time to pay), Internet and cable and I could go on?

The government, in addition to fighting this virus, has got to figure out a way – fast – to get commerce going again. And I’m not talking about two or three weeks; I’m talking about now or as soon as absolutely possible.

It might very well be easier said than done – and bully for the distilleries and breweries who are cranking out the hand sanitizer (washing your hands is still better; the sanitizer is supposed to be used when you can’t wash your hands) – but now the focus has to shift to cranking out millions of face masks of the N95 variety.

Yes, I know: there are differences of opinion as to the effectiveness of face masks. But as information about the virus keeps changing (in the beginning, the World Health Organization said there was no evidence the virus could be spread by person-to-person contact), so could attitudes toward wearing face masks.

One way or another – and my focus is on face masks but there could be alternatives – businesses like Tim’s and Starbucks have to open again so their employees can get back to work. The bike shops, the automobile dealerships and factories, the bars/restaurants and the shoe stores and dress shops have to open their doors too and N95 face masks will, I believe, allow that to happen. It is critical that people start to earn money again.

It is critical because most stores, restaurants and so-on have been closed for at least a week now. There have already been 500,000 applications for EI (up from 27,000 applications for the same week a year ago) and just wait and see what happens this week. These are applications that all have to be processed. (How long do you thing that is going to take?) People don’t have money and might not get any for some time. And when they do get money, it will help but it won’t be enough because EI is swell for people living at or near the poverty line but not nearly enough for most Canadians.

Parliament has been recalled for Tuesday (why not today – Monday? Or yesterday, or Saturday? See? There is not the same sense of urgency when your income is guaranteed) and the necessary legislation will be passed but then it will be sent down that black hole called the federal civil service (see reference to urgency, above) and by the time everybody signs off, it could be a month before the money really starts flowing.

By that time, if not before, maybe even already, people will be out of money and out of food. We are heading for a social breakdown if governments don’t do something right now to get business and commerce up and running again. It could be something draconian, like shutting down the entire country for 14 days and then declaring Canada open for business again. Or something else.

But people have to get back to work – before it’s too late.