Saturday, April 04, 2020

On stitches in time

It’s no secret that Canadians’ individual finances have been getting perpetually more precarious, with most people lacking the ability to fund even a single urgent expense.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what happens when the fragile finances of large numbers of individuals shatter all at once. And while our short-term attention is rightly directed toward limiting the damage, our longer-term view should include working on both increased individual stability as a baseline expectation, and greater social capacity to respond in case of emergency.

At the individual level, the COVID-19 panic started with a combination of massive job losses, and large-scale panic buying as fears about the availability of essential goods became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the latest stressor has arrived this week, as rent has come due for large numbers of workers who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.

For the moment, the best far too many people have been able to do is to keep the bare essentials in place, and try to plan toward the end of the crisis. But we’ll eventually need to reckon on a wider scale with lifestyles built on debt which is barely manageable at the best of times, and the assumption of ongoing income which has proven illusory.

And that need for action is only exacerbated by the deterioration of the government apparatus which should insure against what individuals can’t.

For far too long, buzzwords like “efficiency” and “lean” have been used as excuses to reduce public-sector capacity. And the lack of everything from income supports to hospital beds to personal protective equipment today can be traced to ill-fated calculations that they weren’t needed.

We’ve thus been reminded that the foundational principle of our government shouldn’t be to have the smallest possible footprint. Instead, it’s to be able to reach people who need help. And the extra effort and delay involved in trying to add capacity in the course of a public emergency does nothing but harm to the people who need help most - particularly when that means competing with other governments for the same resources.

On the federal side, the Liberals’ response has involved plenty of headline announcements by Justin Trudeau. But any actual followup has taken far too long to materialize, particularly for a government supposedly obsessed with “deliverology”.

Even the first wave of income support announced through the Employment Insurance system has yet to arrive. And while a brand-new program and application system have been developed to streamline the process, the result has been to put off even the acceptance of applications - let alone the distribution of benefits - until long after people have had to face severe losses of income.

Meanwhile, at the provincial level, we’ve seen a focus primarily on punishment rather than assistance. The Saskatchewan Party has eventually encouraged physical distancing backed by increasingly strong rules. But it’s punted any income support to the federal level, and taken only the tiniest of steps to even acknowledge how we’re all put at risk by failing access to housing and health services.

Eventually, voters will be able to draw our own conclusions as to who’s quickly and accurately identified what needs to be done, and who’s put off needed action at the price of human health and well-being.

And in the process, we should also expect our leaders to have the foresight to prepare for the worst before it’s too late. COVID-19 has radically disrupted the old normal - and we shouldn’t tolerate a return to the individual precarity and government decay that’s made it so difficult to respond.


  1. Interesting point about the punishment aspect as opposed to actually helping those in need.

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