Many years ago, at a Canadian Studies conference at Cambridge University, the estimable Margret Atwood told the audience of Europe- and U.K.-based Canadian specialists that their ability to answer a simple question would reveal the depth of their understanding of Canada.
Then the question: “How do you get 50 Canadian teenagers out of the swimming pool?” A nervous silence, followed by the answer: “Hey kids, please get out of the pool.” Canadians in the room laughed quietly. The others were puzzled equally by the question and the answer.
I have thought a lot about this since mid-March. For the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians were overwhelmingly compliant as governments shut down schools, colleges, universities, and offices. We social-distanced and avoided group meetings. We accepted the widespread closure of stores, restaurants, and theatres. We got out of the pool when asked.
Frustrations understandably grew as time passed, for prolonged isolation and the regulation of social interactions irritated people. The flattening of the Canadian curve allowed governments to relax the rules, with stores and restaurants reopening, students returning to schools and campuses, some offices bringing back some staff, and work gradually expanding.
The climate co-operated. The cool days of spring made it easy to stay home through the first awkward and scary months. The warmth of summer coincided with the relaxing of rules. People could now get together in social circles, but they could now do so on back decks, on the beach, or in the parks.
At the end of summer, the promising developments of August and September gave way to more sombre news. The reopening of bars and restaurants was followed by a growing number of COVID-19 infections and increased concern among governments about the second wave of the pandemic. With large parts of the country still closed off to visitors from other parts of the country, there is growing concern that another broad lockdown is imminent.
The federal and provincial governments face the difficult challenge of balancing three major priorities: protecting the health and safety of the people, sustaining and rebuilding the economy, and accommodating the social and personal needs of Canadian citizens. Since the beginning of October, concern has been growing about a second lockdown and the possibility of another economy- and job-crushing round of government restrictions.
In this environment, governments have to move cautiously to both manage and reassure the country. Canadians are justifiably concerned about the widening economic effects of the pandemic. And even amid valid concerns about the macro-economic impacts, there are much greater worries about the sustainability of government benefit payments as well as the staggering cumulative impacts on the finances of many Canadians.
The country is reeling with pandemic exhaustion, yet we have to maintain our collective vigilance. A full second lockdown, however, would have catastrophic economic consequences, particularly if other competitor nations continue to liberalize their restrictions.
Canada needs to settle into a long-term, sustainable pandemic strategy. Inconsistencies between provinces and territories have to be levelled off so that internal travel can commence or at least expand. More and faster testing is required. We need careful and thoughtful strategies to help sectors at severe risk, including restaurants, travel, and entertainment, and a new focus on entrepreneurship that will push wealth creation to the top of the list of national priorities.
The likely restrictions will be limiting but need not be overwhelmingly so. Wearing masks in public spaces must become standard practice. Organizations will further formalize their work-from-home strategies and many employees will operate from home offices. Restrictions on internal travel will be lifted slowly and thoughtfully. Quick action has allowed the Maritimes to function at near-normal for months, and the mining sector in the territorial North has maintained regular operations, and these will continue.
The greatest challenge will lie with social relationships, particularly among young people, who have suffered severely from the closure of schools and post-secondary institutions and limitations on group gatherings. Special attention has to be paid to this cohort, providing for more supervised but safe and social-distanced events. The COVID generation stands to suffer long-term social and financial challenges from the pandemic; responding proactively to the needs of this group must become a high priority.
Canada’s top priorities should be keeping the country safe, protecting the vulnerable, and restarting the national economy. Anything less will prolong and deepen the crisis. It is too late to retroactively achieve the pandemic controls of New Zealand or Norway. Had Canada reacted faster and better in February-March, we might well be enjoying large-scale sporting and social events and the return of individual mobility and normal work, like these and some other nations. Canada must work its way back, slowly and carefully, while making sure that the country’s economic well-being is restored as quickly as possible.
So, to modify Margaret Atwood’s joke, the question for 2020 is this: What do you say to more than 35 million Canadians to break the back of the COVID-19 pandemic? The revised answer: “Canadians, please follow the public health instructions.” With the right rules, constructive direction from government, and collective action, Canadians can rebuild the economy while slowly stopping the spread of the virus.
The cost of getting this wrong is simply too great.
Ken Coates is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.