OPINION
10/06/2020 12:00 EDT

Slowing COVID-19 Saved Lives And The Economy. Now, Let's Keep Canada Open.

With the right priorities, precautions and hard work, we don't need to give up on a Christmas quite yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge globally, and in the coming days and weeks, countries will decide what policies and measures will be undertaken to curb the transmission rate and protect their economy. Canada is no exception.

In its Speech from the Throne, the Trudeau government pledged to extend support for over eight million Canadians through a number of federal programs that will cost the treasury billions of dollars. Trudeau said that while families won’t likely be able to gather for Canadian Thanksgiving this year, it’s not time to give up on a Christmas quite yet; the actions we take now will determine the course of the virus in Canada through the fall and into the holidays.

Steve Russell via Getty Images
Cars line up for drive-thru COVID-19 testing at the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., on Sept. 23, 2020.

Prior to the recent resurgence of COVID-19, Canada’s response brought rates of disease under control and allowed for careful decision making that considered the balance between continued protection of community health and economic reopening. This was achieved through temporary closures and curtailments in March and April, followed by staged reopening of economic sectors through the summer months, while government fiscal stimulus kept homes and business afloat.

Underpinning this approach was a seeming trade-off: take an initial economic hit to save lives, protect the health-care system and bring the pandemic under control, and eventually reopen the economy with precautions in place. 

Money moves with people who are alive and well enough to spend it, which makes the trade-off between health and the economy a false dichotomy.

Across the border, the U.S. response to COVID-19 has been an unmitigated disaster, with infections and deaths in excess of 7.2 million and 207,000, respectively. Contributing factors to this failure include an absence of political leadership, widespread public distrust, non-compliance with public health recommendations and the premature, unrestricted re-opening of state economies. Over the summer, this led many U.S. states to pause or roll back reopening plans in the face of surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, while the economy foundered.

What is clear from the contrasting responses is that the health of any country’s population and the economy are inextricably linked. Money moves with people who are alive and well enough to spend it, which makes the trade-off between health and the economy a false dichotomy.

The U.S. response is unfortunately an object lesson in what happens when the economy is prioritized over protecting population health. Left unchecked, the spread of COVID-19 has ultimately compromised both.

This is borne out by data which shows that Canada’s economy continues to recover more quickly than its southern neighbour. Last month, Canada’s six largest banks estimated that on average, Canada’s economy will grow at annualized rate of 36 per cent in the third quarter, compared to 20 per cent in the United States.

Canadian governments must find a way to continue to implement policies and safety measures intended to keep COVID-19 transmission rates down, while limiting the impact of a second wave. The initial closures bought time to learn about the virus and ramp up testing, tracing and treatment capacity, which are being brought to bear in targeting future closures.

Of note, the federal government continues to spend billions of dollars to assist small businesses through employment and rent subsidies, provide additional funds for reopening schools, and prevent widespread food and housing insecurity, though the future impact of rapidly increasing amounts of accumulating debt must also be carefully considered.

With the economy broadly reopened across Canada, there has been a slow upward creep of COVID-19 infections as adherence to precautions begins to slip. This makes it even more critical for Canadians to redouble their efforts in sticking to the precautions and controlling the disease, even as they resume aspects of their day-to-day lives. Keeping the economy open will allow it to recover, while also contributing to population health more broadly.

The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Canada-U.S. border closure, in effect since mid-March, was recently extended.

The continuation of certain restrictions should be carefully considered. One such restriction is the current border closure to non-essential travellers, mandated quarantine, and federal recommendation against non-essential travel. With disease rates remaining high in the United States and many other countries, the risk of importation of COVID-19 cases from outside of Canada presents an added threat to continuing control efforts and must be carefully weighed against any economic benefit of a wider border and travel reopening. Figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada indicate that nearly 1,000 flights in Canada have carried at least one COVID-positive passenger since February, 2020.

The reopening of schools and businesses have also highlighted changes in how and where Canadians work. In reflecting existing disparities, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, vulnerable populations and people of colour. In the continued response, governments should continue to consider how best to support and protect workers whose employment renders them unable to work remotely or at greater risk of transmission, as well as industries that have borne the brunt of measures taken to bring COVID-19 under control. This includes measures such as paid sick days, enforcement of workplace precautions and availability of child care.

The direct economic impact of the pandemic is significant globally, especially the loss of labour and consumer spending. However, an approach that prioritizes health, as seen in Canada and elsewhere, ultimately prioritizes the economy. An effective public health response wrests control of the timeline back from the disease, allowing society to make choices in moving forward.

A recent survey released by the Pew Research Center found that 88 per cent of Canadians approved of Canada’s response to COVID-19, and that the crisis had brought the country together. This bodes well for Canadians to continue adhering to precautions as communities continuing to move forward with reopening.

What is ultimately clear is that prioritizing public health and disease control through policy has not only saved lives and protected health and well-being, but also provided a strong foundation for economic recovery and growth. Safeguarding this advantage means adapting our lives to the precautions set out by public health, keeping hope afloat through to Christmas.

Dr. Lawrence Loh is Medical Officer of Health in Peel Region and an Adjunct Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. 

Paul M. Yeung is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, and graduate of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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