COVID-19 in an Interdependent World

by Terrance Hunsley

The crisis shows interdependent we are; our social and economic systems and the ecosystem that we live in. An ecologically-stressed species starts shedding its viruses and by laws of chance, humans become a new host.

We have overpopulated the world and we are globally integrated. The economy, communications, travel, transportation, markets, fashions, cellphones, families. The virus spreads around the earth, our host.  

National governments, state and provincial governments, city governments, react. Some are coordinated, some not.

The markets are drubbed by panic investor reactions. Made worse by the aggressive Saudi action to cut oil prices and further undermine economic stability. Waves of business closures and layoffs take place.  

Canada reacted swiftly this past week, announcing measures to sustain individuals and to help businesses stay afloat. $82 Billion. Some of it seems to be temporary –  deferring the tax date until the end of June.

Many large numbers are thrown around. Perhaps the most important being $27Billion to provide temporary relief to those who will lose their income. We are told to self isolate and impose social distance. Some cooperate. Some don’t. Some can’t.

The dollar numbers are not helpful. They don’t tell us how many need money, nor if everyone who does will get it.  It would be better to say “We will make sure everyone has enough money to get through this.” The PM reassures us that we have the financial power to do this. Our national debt is about half our annual GDP. The US debt is about twice that proportion.

Those at home, working, not working, retired, quarantined or sick, are dependent on a lot of workers taking risks to keep us supplied with essential products and services. Health workers, personal support workers, charity and emergency service workers, sanitation workers, prison workers,  transport and delivery workers, food stockers and handlers, warehouse workers. Ironic that many of these people have low wages, little job security, little by way of sick pay, vacation or retirement benefits. The Ontario government in 2018 even amended legislation to remove the minimum requirement that employers provide at least two days of paid sick leave per year. 

People like the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN), feel that the support package for workers, which seems to be about 1.3% of our GDP, is kind of thin. Other countries announced higher amounts. But the PM told us this is just stage one.   

Part of the new money will flow to people who receive the Canada Child Benefit and the HST tax credit. That should get there quickly with little administrative hassle. BICN recommends that Canada increase and prolong those transfers to become a kind of basic income guarantee for everyone. They see straightforward transfers to those with low incomes as more efficient than squeezing money out through more restrictive and bureaucratic programs such as Employment Insurance which received 500,000 applications just last week, instead of maybe 30,000.  Many Canadians support the idea of an efficient, dignified and effective basic income guarantee, but have been scared off by worries of who would pay for it. BICN recommends financing it through tax increases on wealth and high incomes. What better time to give it a try?   

  When we get through this, we will owe a great debt to our health care system, which is being overworked because we have financed it just enough to meet our essential health care need running at 100% capacity.   

We did not invest a lot in prevention.  We did not develop extra capacity to deal with pandemics or other health threats that come from environmental disruption (like Lymes disease for example).  The health system will have been severely stressed. It will also have learned how to adapt quickly. We will hopefully have developed a capacity to provide any kind of equipment needed in emergencies from local sources, rather than competing with other nations to import it from other countries.

Someone called the virus “an equal opportunity killer”.  We will find when we look back, that the distribution of victims – mortality, morbidity, loss of jobs, etc –  will not be random.  There will be clear patterns by age and by socio-economic status. 

We will have lost many seniors to the virus. We will also have a substantial population of seniors who have survived the viral pneumonia, but will thereafter have compromised health. 

Professionals who can work at home, and who have large institutional employers, will suffer less. The ones who have to keep working in proximity to others, will suffer more. People living in crowded conditions or in shelters, will suffer more. 

The crisis will bring on a wave of new learning and social adaptation.

We will surely develop new protocols for prevention, especially in the school system. Online, virtual and distance education capabilities will receive a boost. We have had the technology for many years, but not much incentive to use it. But as it does move into the mainstream of education, it will reduce costs, physical barriers and distance barriers. Our colleges and universities will become capable of serving more students from the same physical complex.  

We will have learned some new forms of social interaction, probably more outdoor activities like meet-up groups for walking, hiking, etc. We will have used communication technology for new purposes – community volunteer committee meetings, virtual parties. There will be new opportunities for people to work from home. 

We will have accelerated the transformation of business and work arrangements. Online businesses like Amazon will have expanded and also learned how to adapt their business practice to new forms of demand. Storefront retail will be hit hard and many will not recover. Many employees who lose their jobs during the crisis will need to seek contract work because employers will have used the disruption to implement new technology and work requirements. We are fortunate in a sense, that the baby boom is retiring and demanding more health care. It both frees up existing jobs for younger workers, and creates new demand for health and personal care workers. It provides some cushioning effect.

Health, social care and education are all expanding industries. And they largely employ women. Which explains some of today’s gender gap. Ironic that someone who looks after your children or parents is probably not paid as much as someone who looks after your car. Your car won’t be needed in five or ten years.   

When it all passes, we will find ourselves even more dependent on the internet, which itself is becoming constantly more integral to our lives. The next phase integrates not only all people, but also all of the things around us – an internet of people and things. Ironic maybe that it is nature, not technology, which is now showing us how interdependent we are. 

Hopefully it will become apparent that being as integrated and interconnected as we are, government is the institution that needs to keep us living and working together.  Canadians are fortunate to have elected governments – of all stripes – that have for the most part been good stewards of our resources, and that we are better prepared than many to weather this difficult time.      

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