Opinion: Virus is now an economic crisis

It’s not the end of the COVID-19 crisis in Canada, but it is the end of frenzied crisis management in Ottawa — or at least an important corner turned.

Justin Trudeau and the country’s chief public health officers made it official on Monday: They no longer feel it’s necessary to give Canadians daily updates on the spread of the pandemic in this country.

Like the virus, they aren’t totally disappearing — and can return at any time. But the steady decline of COVID-19 in Canada, documented in a bundle of statistical updates also released on Monday, is allowing the federal government to formally downgrade its emergency-management procedures.

A nation largely in the midst of reopening is going to have to wean itself off the daily updates, health lectures and “we’ll get through this” reassurances we have become accustomed to receiving from the capital since March.

We still have to keep our physical distance from each other, but we’ll be doing that with some greater distance from the emergency managers in Ottawa.

Trudeau was venturing into talk about lessons learned on Monday, signalling, perhaps, that his government’s focus on COVID-19 is shifting from fearful forecasts to rear-view reflection.

“There’s certainly plenty of things we would have done differently,” Trudeau said at his briefing outside Rideau Cottage, which will no longer be a daily thing.

“Some things we might have done a little sooner. Some things we might have done a little later,” the prime minister said without elaborating on details, noting that there wasn’t time at first in this crisis to do more than react.

Now, however, Trudeau said that an analysis of Ottawa’s reaction is underway.

“Those reflections, of course, are ongoing and will continue to be ongoing so that we’re better positioned for a potential second wave,” he said.

Many weeks ago, when the virus’s case and death counts were still climbing, Canada’s chief public health officer said Canada wouldn’t know when the worst was passed in the COVID-19 crisis until well after that point had been reached. Monday may have been that milepost.

Dr. Theresa Tam’s presentation to reporters was also reflective, as she and her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, spoke of the crisis in the past tense and even entertained questions about taking a break this summer.

Tam said she may even take some of her own advice about work-life balance and scale back the 20-hour work days she’s been logging.

Like the prime minister, they weren’t talking of any specific lessons learned, but when they spoke about how the crisis unfolded, some themes did emerge, which will no doubt be part of any analysis they’re now doing.

COVID-19 hit the most vulnerable people in Canada the hardest, exposing “social and economic inequities,” Tam said.

The worst outbreaks were in long-term care homes and seniors’ residences, hospitals, correctional facilities, meat processing facilities, agricultural settings and shelters.

The epidemic arrived globally, but played out hyper-locally. Or, as the latest statistical modelling presentation from Ottawa put it, “National trends reveal a series of regional epidemics.”

The best way to contain the spread of the virus, until there is a vaccine, is to get better at contact tracing and testing. Progress has been made since March, the public health officials said, but more needs to be done.

One’s chances of getting the virus still come down to simple arithmetic: the more people you’re around, the greater your risk. That risk hasn’t gone away, despite all the talk on Monday of ratcheted-down emergency status.

Trudeau spoke at his soon-to-be-more-rare briefing on Monday about how he’s been developing the habit of wearing a mask in public.

The geared-down emergency in Ottawa coincides with the beginning of summer, but it also aligns with what’s been evident for weeks now: The public-health crisis of the first part of this pandemic is now more of an economic crisis for most Canadians.

Even as the prime minister and the health officials are exiting centre stage, the lingering economic damage of the pandemic will remain in the spotlight.

Many of the prime minister’s pandemic-relief announcements of recent weeks revolve around digging in for the long term: extending benefits and measures for those whose economic prospects were devastated.

Next week, in fact, when governments and politicians would any other year be going into a post-Canada Day break, Trudeau and his finance minister will be releasing an economic update of sorts, with plenty of blanks about what’s on the fiscal horizon.

Crisis management as we’ve known it for roughly 111 days now is going away, but the crisis isn’t.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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