Wednesday, June 17, 2020

On imbalanced budgets

This week’s resumption of activity in the Legislative Assembly has given rise to a familiar back-and-forth over the provincial budget. As usual, we’re seeing the government and opposition spar over how much to invest in our province, and which services should take precedence.

But over the past few months, we’ve witnessed another crucial exercise in budgeting - one which hasn’t followed on established patterns of political operation, and which may be far more telling in analyzing the priorities of Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government.

Once the severity of the coronavirus pandemic was finally recognized in March, the province faced a brand-new task: budgeting the social activity which could be permitted, based on an inexorable tradeoff between personal freedoms and public health dangers.

At the outset, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to what level of activity would risk the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. And contrary to the oft-used theme of a “lockdown”, it was never possible to entirely eliminate the risk of community spread due to the need to preserve access to the basics of life.

By April, available modelling offered some indication that we had room to open up. Based on estimates made public by the Province of British Columbia (PDF, see p. 20, 22), it was possible to keep the infection curve flat at about 70% of normal social contact, and lower it with further restrictions.

It’s then been a matter of government discretion to determine what activities would be allowed to resume within those constraints. And Moe’s choices along the way are telling.

The first phase began with a focus on golfing, recreational fishing and boat launches. While work, school and nearly all other activities outside of the home remained on hold for the vast majority of the province, these few, male-skewed, profit-making leisure activities were made the top priority for reopening.

In contrast, despite massive public outcry from families, playgrounds remained off limits until last week. And when they were finally reopened, it was without any specific health precautions on the government’s part other than to shut off water fountains.

A month after retailers and malls were allowed to resume business, libraries and museums still haven’t been able to open their doors. And day camps were given a green light only after it was too late for many to organize for the summer.

Elective medical procedures were kept on hold until after cosmetic personal care treatments were reopened, reflecting an emphasis on perception over health.

And people in in-patient care or long-term care went an extended period of time with little or no access to family caregivers before restrictions were finally eased this month.

In effect, anything which wasn’t top of mind for the business class was ignored until that became politically impossible. Executives’ recreation was given precedence over childhood development, retail sales over public services, and business interests over connection to family. And we’ll be facing the social and mental health fallout from those choices for a long time to come.

Now, it would be nice to pretend those choices are behind us. But that’s far from a safe assumption.

The ongoing management of COVID-19 includes maintaining existing distancing protocols, and supporting new precautions such as the widespread wearing of masks. And efforts to change the subject to infrastructure announcements, or otherwise claim the worst is behind us, will implicitly contradict the need for ongoing public action.

Which is to say that our COVID budget may yet be our most important political consideration. And there’s reason to doubt that we’ll see the right choices from the Saskatchewan Party anytime soon.

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