The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented struggle for all of us, including our leaders. Indeed, while the Government of Canada has dealt with similar struggles in the past, it has been a century since something on this scale has occurred (with the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1919 as the closest comparison). We have changed a lot since the early 20th century when it comes to medicine and public decision-making, but COVID-19 has made it clear that we have plenty of lessons left to learn. While there have been a number of successes, there are also some criticisms that can be leveled against our politicians. In order to hold our officials accountable, we must be honest about the positives and negatives to create a better society that is more prepared for future challenges.
At the time of this blog post, there have been 25,000+ deaths from this terrible illness in Canada alone. This is an international tragedy, and people all over the world are mourning the loss of loved ones. In this country, despite our many privileges, we have not been able to escape the suffering that this pandemic has unleashed around the world. While some of these losses may have been inevitable, as we simply may not have the capacity to prevent all cases of a fast-spreading virus, we need to ask ourselves whether some of these lives could have been saved.
As the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) suggests, “The goals of Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery have been identified as minimizing all serious illness and death, while limiting societal disruption, including reducing the burden on health care resources.” The results of these goals have been mixed; as CPHA describes, “to accomplish these goals, the Government of Canada has taken unprecedented actions to respond to the outbreaks that have affected all aspects of life,” but these governmental actions have not been entirely successful. We still have to deal with a massive tragedy. To limit these losses further if (and when) such a significant crisis occurs again, we must consider what we did right and what could be done better in the future.
Various levels of government initiated a number of shutdown measures. While different provinces each had their own unique responses, there were a variety of measures that occurred in some form across the nation. Masks were required in most public places, and physical distancing mandates were put in place, with people encouraged to stay 6 feet apart (sometimes getting fines for failing to do so). These measures have been helpful; CPHA argues that “these efforts have had success in ‘flattening of the curve,’” reducing the number of cases by slowing the spread. If these regulations had not been put in place, there almost certainly would have been many more deaths.
The government has also offered financial assistance to businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals who have struggled during these difficult times. The lockdowns have placed a major strain on the economy, as many people have been forced to stay home and closing businesses, resulting in the loss of several jobs. For example, CPHA describes how “the unemployment rate was 13.7% in May 2020, up from 5.6% in February 2020,” just one sign of the shockwaves this pandemic has sent throughout our society. While some have criticized the government shutdowns for these effects, the financial losses may have been much worse if the virus had been allowed to spread, not to mention the untold human suffering if these actions had not been taken. The CERB benefit and other measures to ease the financial burden have helped reduce the economic toll.
Yet, according to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), “some advocates have asked, what happens once the pandemic is over? Even before the pandemic, countless Canadians were forced to choose between essentials, like food or medication, due to a lack of economic resources. And after the pandemic, the number of Canadians experiencing hardships is likely to be much greater.” With the many social problems caused or exacerbated by COVID-19, long-term responses must go beyond the temporary solutions that the government is currently offering. A Band-Aid may stem the bleeding, but it will not cure the deeper problems facing our society. Some, like the ICC, have suggested the possibility of a universal basic income (UBI). This has already been adopted in Spain, partly in response to the pandemic. According to the ICC, “maybe it’s time to consider some of the ways that having a basic financial safety net could have a positive effect on the lives of Canadians.” Whatever the solution, there needs to be more than just stop-gap measures; we need big ideas that will last beyond the current crisis to help Canadians recover from these problems and come out stronger on the other side.
Others have expressed concerns about long-term care homes, the lack of access to inexpensive pharmaceuticals, the need for more vaccine research and production at home, the importance of helping other countries obtain access to vaccinations, the lack of affordable housing, income inequalities, racial inequities, and the need for more mental health care. All of these issues may require a rethinking of how we care for each other, both during a pandemic and in everyday life after the COVID crisis is over. The Government of Canada has played an important role in responding to the challenge, but its efforts have still been insufficient in a number of ways. Governments, both local and national, need to be more responsive to the needs of everyone, but especially those who are most vulnerable. Ultimately, we can only address these issues when we acknowledge the problems of COVID and the struggles that go deeper than the present moment. Only then can we secure a better future for all of us.