Governments fight to curb COVID-19 and fallout from growing job losses

TORONTO — The two-pronged battle to contain the spread of COVID-19 while inoculating the economy against the worst side effects saw governments on Tuesday rush to ease financial hardship amid massive job losses, even as they tightened restrictions that could last weeks.

With large swaths of normal life grinding to a halt and the health system under increased strain, the federal government looked to pass emergency legislation aimed at allowing for $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes.

Speaking from outside his home in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged people need direct financial help quickly given what he called the “biggest health crisis our country has ever seen.”

“The demand is massive across the country,” Trudeau said ahead of an emergency sitting of a much-reduced House of Commons.

But attempts to get the legislation through stalled as the Opposition Conservatives said they would support financial help for Canadians but not grant the Liberal government a “blank cheque.” In addition, some groups rapped the government’s proposed 10 per cent wage subsidy for business to keep people on their payrolls as simply too little.

The political tussle came as the number of COVID-related fatalities in Canada reached 25 amid a case-load approaching 2,200, with Quebec seeing 385 new infections. The country’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said as many Canadians testing positive had contracted the virus from community transmission as from travel.

Public health authorities say some people infected with the highly contagious novel coronavirus have no symptoms, while most experience mild or moderate effects, such as fever and cough. Most recover. However, the respiratory illness can lead to hospitalization and death, with the most severe cases mostly occurring in older patients or those with underlying conditions.

Increased stress on the health system was apparent. Paramedics, forced to take cumbersome steps to protect themselves, warned of being stretched by more calls for help in some areas than ambulances to handle them. The Paramedic Association of Canada pleaded with people experiencing mild symptoms to avoid calling 911.

In Saskatchewan, an internal planning document painted a bleak forecast.

“Even under conservative assumptions, COVID-19 will almost certainly overwhelm the health system,” according to the March 20 document obtained by The Canadian Press.

The report for the Saskatchewan Health Authority warned thousands of people in the province could die.

To slow the spread, experts advise frequent hand-washing and, crucially, avoiding close contact with others. The result has been an almost complete shutdown of places where people normally gather — schools, stores, places of worship, restaurants and entertainment and sports venues — putting hundreds of thousands out of work.

Signs of the economic impact were easily found. With severe restrictions on international travel, hundreds of Air Canada pilots were going on unpaid leave, while thousands of others agreed to pay cuts, their union said. Bombardier Inc. said it was suspending production in Canada and stopping all non-essential work.

About 6,900 WestJet staff — roughly half the company’s workforce — were leaving the carrier, almost all voluntarily through buyouts or early retirement, the company said.

The Canadian government, like others around the world, hopes a massive injection of money will help douse the flames of the raging economic fire. Financial markets, slammed by the pandemic, did recover some ground on Tuesday

To help cushion the fallout, Ontario Premier Doug Ford implemented a cut in electricity rates given the large numbers of people now working from home. Ford announced a 45-day switch to only the lowest off-peak pricing for residences, farms and small businesses.

“We’re leaving more money in people’s pockets,” Ford said.

Trudeau said it was impossible to say how long emergency restrictions would need to stay in place. He warned of “much more stringent measures” if people don’t voluntarily heed urgent pleas to stay home.

“The duration of this crisis will be determined by the choices we make right now,” Trudeau said.

The Assembly of First Nations declared a state of emergency, calling for more funding and special consideration for Canada’s 96 remote, fly-in Indigenous communities.

States of emergency are now in effect across the country. All non-essential businesses and services in Ontario and Quebec were either shut or set to shut. The two provinces had considered closing their common border but Ford suggested that would be impractical.

Manitoba suspended any rent increases starting April 1 and ensured a hiatus in evictions due to non-payment of rent.

The prime minister said one million people returned to Canada this past week. He also announced further flights to repatriate stranded Canadians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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