Forgive health-care workers’ student debt

Forgive health-care workers’ student debt

Thanking front-line workers has become a national pastime — a welcome one — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the best ideas for expressing that gratitude is not yet officially on the table in Canada, but it should be: forgiving the student debt of all medical workers doing battle against the virus.

If this is a war, as political leaders keep saying, these front-line workers are the soldiers, and Canada has thanked its war veterans of the past with paid education.

Instead of paying for school when the war is over, though, this time, the nation would be paying for the education that made their service so essential in fighting the pandemic.

“These health-care workers have been making sure that everybody’s safe, they’ve been putting their bodies on the line. The very least the government can do is forgive their debt,” says Sofia Descalzi, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.

Several petitions have been circulating to get this idea off the ground in Canada and beyond in recent weeks.

In the United States, the debt-forgiveness proposal has already made its way into draft legislation by New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

Maloney declared her intention to introduce the bill a few weeks ago, also calling it “the least we can do” to recognize the sacrifice of nurses, doctors and other health-care professionals fighting the pandemic.

How much would such an idea cost in Canada?

Sorting that out isn’t easy, because student loans are handled by federal and provincial governments. But according to figures from the Canadian Federation of Students, education debt amounts to about $36 billion in this country, and more than half of it, $19 billion, is owed to the federal government.

A comprehensive Statistics Canada report on the class of 2015 showed that the average student debt ranged from roughly $15,000 for college graduates to $33,000 for those who hold doctorates.

Descalzi says it’s well known that health-care education can be the most costly, whether it’s the texts or equipment the students need to buy, or the sheer length of time it takes to become a doctor.

Sorting out who would be eligible for debt forgiveness could be complicated, but not impossible. Just the other day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduced a $4-an-hour pay raise for about 350,000 front-line workers, and the same criteria could be used to give them a more expansive (and expensive) thank you.

As well, many governments in Canada already provide some form of debt forgiveness for medical staff, in what’s called “return service” arrangements.

The federal government, for instance, forgives student debt for doctors and nurses who go to work in designated rural and remote communities — up to $8,000 a year for doctors and $4,000 a year for nurses and nurse practitioners.

“We’ve got the structure to put it in place,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist, when I asked her about the feasibility of doing this debt-forgiveness thank you to the front line of the pandemic.

Without endorsing or rejecting the idea, Yalnizyan said she presumed it could work as an expansion of the return-service provisions already offered to selected health-care workers across Canada

I like the idea because it turns all the pandemic-is-war rhetoric into something tangible for the front-line workers.

If we are hoping that a “greatest generation” will emerge from this crisis, like after the Second World War, debt forgiveness will give front-line workers the financial freedom to help fuel the spending boom we’re going to need for post-pandemic business too.

It worked in the last century: more than 50,000 Second World War vets took advantage of programs to fund their university studies, creating a whole new educated class to build postwar Canada.

University is far less affordable today, for vets or anyone else and, by most estimates, more than half of post-secondary graduates are in some kind of debt.

Relieved of what they still owe for their health-care education, our pandemic vets could be in a better position to buy houses, start families or send their own kids off to school — all the things that we want people to be doing to get the economy back on track.

Beyond that practical consideration, though, it would also be the decent thing to do. There’s been much debate in this country over the past couple of decades about how we treat our veterans.

Now we have a whole new crop of them, engaged in a war they never signed up to fight. A pay bump is nice, and so is all that noisemaking on porches and balconies, but student debt-forgiveness would be an enduring expression of gratitude.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Canada's chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Tam warns that full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Canada’s chief public health officer reminded Canadians on Saturday that even those… Continue reading

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour conducts drills during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
NHL relaxing virus protocols for vaccinated playoff teams

The NHL is relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a threshold… Continue reading

Canada skip Kerri Einarson directs her teammates against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson eliminated at curling worlds after 8-3 loss to Sweden’s Hasselborg

CALGARY — Canada’s Kerri Einarson was eliminated at the world women’s curling… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Most Read