by Terrance Hunsley
People say that COVID has catapulted us into the future. A lot of the adaptations we have made for the pandemic will establish new patterns. Life will become more diverse and disperse. Public policy needs to get smarter and quicker to respond.
After COVID, more people will work from home, or divide their work time between home and office. Employers will find they can get by on perhaps half of the office space. New businesses will use less space. Commuting and work-related travel will become more diverse in pattern and time of day. Child care patterns and time periods will be more varied and intermittent. More of the people working from home will work for international businesses. The work automation process is accelerating and will eliminate many jobs.
Education systems will incorporate more remote learning, more online and virtual learning systems. School and home study patterns will be more diverse. Universities and colleges will be able to serve greater numbers at small incremental costs, and save on physical plants. Students and teaching faculties can be spread around the world.
Health care is changing. Perhaps half of ambulatory visits to doctors or nurse practitioners will be remote, permitting greater efficiency for service providers and substantial time and travel savings for patients. Telehealth is expanding rapidly. New medical technology is permitting more procedures to be done remotely, self-administered or by equipping para-professionals with technology that links with medical experts. More diseases and disabilities will be managed in the home with virtual support, robot assistants and mobile care services. More counselling activities, including psychological and mental health counselling, will be done remotely.
As the demographic wave of older people requiring care and support rolls in, there will be more jobs for workers in social and health services. Governments and private sector providers will be seeking to accelerate training systems, and will invent new work categories to maximize the use of less-expensive workers. Delivering services in a million homes will be a logistical challenge for workers as well as the organizations employing them. There is a good possibility that governments will decide to provide seniors needing care with an envelope of money and let them figure out for themselves how to spend it.
More shopping will be online with delivery. There will be fewer trips to the shopping centre. Delivery services will become more diversified, and soon, with self-driving vehicles, potentially more automated.
Many people will choose to move farther from the city centre to get the kind of housing they want. Small towns and villages are being rejuvenated. Public transport systems will struggle to deal with more diverse travel patterns, as rush hour becomes more fragmented. Urban sprawl could become an even bigger challenge.
Some of the online exercise programs, yoga training, and group classes will remain in place as people choose to exercise at home.
Criminals will continue to adapt. There may be fewer burglaries and car thefts, but more scams, including delivery scams, more online and identity fraud, more online data invasion. Predatory cyber service interventions could plague people working from home.
COVID has also accelerated online business expansion, mergers and acquisitions. Money and power are being gobbled up. It took Apple 42 years, until 2018, to become a one-trillion dollar company. It took two more years, until September 2020, to be worth two trillion. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other digital platform companies are surging in a similar way. These companies can get workers almost anywhere in the world, so competition to push labour costs down will continue. Economic inequality will increase as workers seize opportunities on the occupational ladders, or in the puddles at the bottom. Public policy faces a growing challenge at both ends of the spectrum.
Adapting public policy
Governments will need to ensure that people are not victimized or left behind by the new shape of life. But there is opportunity to get things on a good track.
With reduced rush times on city streets, there is opportunity to create more pedestrian and cycling-friendly routes. A step forward for healthy exercise, reduced air pollution, reduced use of fossil fuels.
Extra space in government and commercial buildings will offer opportunity for more affordable and more environmentally friendly housing, with more density in cities and more efficient services. Urban planning can make great strides in developing healthy cities, if city lifestyle can compete with the push for bigger houses. If city boundaries are kept in place, people moving away can enjoy town and village lives rather than bedroom communities.
With the shift to online shopping and delivery, what better time to require that delivery vehicles be electric or hybrid? A further shift to environmental sustainability. Mobile health services and passenger transport can be required to do the same. Selective subsidies and a simultaneous increase in fossil fuel taxes will help to push the change.
Tax policy, labour policy, and income security policy will need to adapt to the new forms of working. It is likely that more people working from home will come to mean more self-employed people. As the employee-employer relationship becomes less common, it will be necessary to connect people to employment insurance, disability insurance, pension plans, education and training credits, through other mechanisms than an employer. The plans will need to be tailored to different and changing circumstances. If businesses are expected to continue to contribute to the worker’s health and security, then a different form of contribution mechanism will be needed. Government could, for example, impose a worker benefit surtax on every business financial transaction.
The accumulation of unheard-of levels of wealth, economic and political power is a tougher nut to crack. OECD countries, after announcing plans a few years ago to apply fair taxes on global corporations, have failed to do so. If they do reach some consensus in future, it will probably be only for a minimal tax. Frustrated by their lack of commitment, France’s President Macron announced in 2019 that he would impose a 3% tax on the revenues gained by large global companies in France. Many of the companies involved are headquartered in the US. Although they do not pay much tax there, they still pressured US politicians to oppose the move. As a result, Trump threatened France with a 100% tariff on US imports from France, and voila, France backed down. The tail wagged the dog until its teeth fell out.
It seems that the US has to be involved if any group of countries are going to take a significant action. We can perhaps hope that Mr. Biden will take a more useful role. But it is not just the US who are dragging their feet on the OECD project. Many countries including Canada, are tax havens for their favoured industries. Public policy is unlikely to move here unless there is a very concerted international grass roots campaign, perhaps targeting the biggest companies with boycotts.
At the other end, workers who are likely to lose their jobs during or after COVID, or who become dependent on piecework – online, in deliveries, or otherwise, tend to be politically inactive. They have little faith that government will do anything to really help them. If you think about how many years there has been a struggle for a $15 minimum wage, or even decent sick leave provisions, it seems like they are right. Canada has one of the largest proportions of the work force in low wage employment among OECD countries. But a brave Prime Minister could get a lot of support right now if he announced a Guaranteed Living Wage for every worker in the country. He could adjust the Canada Workers Benefit to bring every worker’s income up to 3/4 of the median wage in the economic region, and then phase out above that. Now would be the time, and financing it with a tax on wealth would be a way to do it. It would also stimulate the economy during the recovery period.
Lots of challenges. But lots of potential advances too.