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Dangerous Disease, Risky Response

I am a senior citizen with asthma. Therefore, I belong to the “at risk” group. Still, it is unlikely that I will contract COVID-19. It is even less likely that I will die from it. I am not greatly worried. I know that, if not COVID-19, something else will almost certainly kill me sometime in the next couple of decades.

What I am currently more concerned about is the response to COVID-19. Cruise lines have shut down. Airline schedules have been reduced. Sporting events (and whole seasons) have been cancelled. Concerts have been cancelled. Movie filming and movie releases have been postponed. Political rallies have been cancelled. (At least, there is one positive development.) Vacations have been cancelled. Religious services have been cancelled. Schools have been closed. Border restrictions and even travel bans are in place. Workers with the sniffles have been told not to come to work.

The cancellations and closures are meant to be temporary, but there is no guarantee that the crisis will have passed, no likelihood that the disease will have been eliminated, in a month or two months or even two years. Temporary closures could be semi-permanent.

All of these measures are considered necessary and worthwhile in order to contain the spread of the virus. That is a laudable goal and worth it if the measures are successful. However, it is still an open question if these measures will be successful. Infected people can spread the disease before symptoms appear, and it is likely that the disease has already spread to people who have dismissed it as a cold or the flu and who have never been tested.

As well, the response will not be without significant costs and risks. Although the statistics proving it will not be compiled for weeks, it is a good supposition that the response to COVID-10 has created, or will create, a global recession. It is an obvious conclusion and likely inevitable. Whole industries cannot be shut down without it having an effect on the economy.

I am not worried about professional athletes missing a paycheque. It is a different story for the ticket takers, ushers, concession workers, taxi drivers, and other support staff. It is also a different story for the corner stores and small and large businesses that are patronized by these lower level workers.

As is usual, the recession will hit the hardest those least able to deal with it. Some of those currently employed are living paycheque to paycheque. Some who lose their jobs will be unable to pay their rent or their mortgage and will become homeless. Some will not be able to buy their regular medication. Some will not be able to buy enough food. Some will postpone dental work. Some will become depressed and turn to alcohol, drugs, and suicide. As businesses and transportation networks shut down, some needed supplies might no longer be available. Interrupted educations might never be resumed, and that will have long-term consequences. Given the fact that, as of this writing, only one Canadian has so far died of the disease, it is quite possible that the recession will kill more people than COVID-19.

And that is just in affluent countries. The impact in Third World countries will be worse. Most of the workers on cruise ships come from the Third World and depend on that income to support their families. Many Third World countries depend on tourism and on the ability to sell their food and raw materials to wealthy countries. 

The Canadian government has promised to eliminate the waiting period for Employment Insurance for workers who lose their jobs or are laid off due to COVID-19 and also to assist companies which have been seriously affected. Of course, it will be difficult to distinguish workers laid off because of the virus from workers laid off because of the resulting economic slowdown. They are victims of the disease as much as the others. Further, Employment Insurance payments are only a partial replacement for employment income. And the government’s $1 billion commitment will be grossly inadequate to counter the economic downturn. Much more will be needed.

Where will the government get the money for all of this? From taxing the income of the unemployed workers and the profits of failing companies? The government can only give out what it takes in from the private economy. The Canadian government can borrow money, of course, but it has already been running massive deficits for several years, and there is a limit to how much lenders will be willing to risk.

COVID-19 is a serious and lethal problem. The cure just might be as bad as the disease.

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