March 14, 2019 - Head shot of Toronto Star columnist Heather Scoffield.    DAVE CHAN FOR THE TORONTO STAR

Opinion: We can’t turn our back on COVID

The economic grind of the second wave is coming into sharp focus.

But so is the folly of a hasty reopening in the hopes of lightening the load.

On Friday, the latest job numbers from Statistics Canada showed that the rapid rebounds in the labour market over the course of the first reopening this summer have slowed remarkably.

Employment expanded by just 0.5 per cent in October, a meagre increase compared to the 2.7 per cent average monthly expansions we’ve seen since May. It’s not nothing. But it’s clear that the second wave of the virus has begun to take its toll on the recovery, and parts of the labour market have balked.

About 150,000 people retreated from their workplaces and sought shelter in their home offices again. Another 48,000 people working in accommodation and food services lost their jobs, especially in Quebec, reflecting the fact that the second wave is hitting that province harder than elsewhere, and that hotels, restaurants and bars are on the front lines of new restrictions there.

More concerning for our recovery prospects, the mass of people who have been without jobs for at least six months is climbing, spiking at record rates.

Long-term unemployment rose by 35 per cent in September and 51 per cent in October. There are now almost 450,000 workers considered long-term unemployed — a quarter of all those who are out of a job.

That’s especially worrisome because staying out of the workforce for long periods often means that skills atrophy and prospects for finding a good job diminish, permanently damaging the ability of companies to find the workers they need to keep producing, and for workers to find the wages they need to pay the bills.

The combination of long-term corrosion with the repeated cycle of short-term restrictions pushes a full recovery further down the road.

At least this time, there isn’t a full shutdown, at least not yet. But with pressure mounting on local public health authorities and premiers alike to let businesses get back to work, there’s no guarantee we won’t be there soon.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had some ominous words on that front on Friday. He pointed to the cautionary tale of the United Kingdom, where political leaders gave in to the pressure to restart the economy before COVID-19 was fully under control.

As a result, coronavirus cases exploded, and it’s now back in full lockdown. Its efforts to boost the economy actually did more harm, setting back its path to recovery substantially.

“We’re not going to do that,” Trudeau said.

But in some parts of the country, we may be in the midst of doing exactly that.

The number of new cases topped 1,000 in both Ontario and Quebec on Friday, a day after Premier Doug Ford rolled out a budget meant to stimulate the economy back to life. He’s also easing some restrictions, much to the dismay of some public health experts and authorities.

In Montreal, local authorities have pushed for fewer restrictions, but Premier Francois Legault has resisted.

Across the country, it’s clear that business is getting antsy, and is lobbying hard for both a better, more surgical control of contagion and a simultaneous reopening. Of course, any responsible politician would hear their cry, and the troubling labour market weighs on the minds of business and government alike.

But that combination of controlling the contagion and reopening business just doesn’t seem possible right now. Without wide distribution and easy access to rapid testing and contact tracing, brash reopening invites more COVID-19 cases, which in turn leads to another round of closures.

This destructive and often confusion-inducing tug-of-war shouldnít have to happen.

Trudeau points to supports the federal government has recently put in place to ensure that any business hit by a localized closure will get extra rent subsidies, as well as the now-standard access to wage subsidies and business loans that are readily available to companies on the brink.

They should be able to weather more pandemic restrictions even if it’s not their first choice, the federal government believes, and their long-term prosperity depends on it.

But that message gets lost in the day-to-day fear in the bills coming due, the lack of confidence that federal and provincial support is adequate, and the deep drive to get back to work, back to business.

It looks like the federal government can afford to stifle those instincts with generous, well-timed support, according to long-term fiscal projections set out by the parliamentary budget officer on Friday.

As long as Ottawa removes its subsidies when the pandemic winds down, the deficits it has bulked up during the crisis are big but manageable.

From Day 1, Trudeau and his cabinet have repeated like a mantra that control of the pandemic is a prerequisite for economic recovery. Shortcuts will backfire.

But to put make those words meaningful, authorities at all levels need to buy in to the wisdom behind them — with enough restrictions to keep the pandemic under control and enough money to keep business and labour whole.

Heather Scoffield 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

An Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet arrives at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Air Canada agrees to $5.9-billion aid package, giving Ottawa equity stake in airline

$1.4 billion earmarked to help reimburse thousands of customers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Yukon Premier Sandy Silver as Liberal on Wednesday February 8, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Yukon headed for minority government as two main parties in a tie

Liberals came into the election looking to build on their surprise 2016 majority win

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Sajjan took aim at recent Chinese military expansions into the South China Sea this evening even as he faced questions about the Liberal government’s ties to Beijing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Sajjan targets Chinese claims in South China Sea, battles Tories over Beijing ties

HMCS Calgary shadowed for at least part of the voyage as it passed near the disputed Spratly Islands

Transport trucks approach the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. North American trade is facing a “critical moment” in the ongoing aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, say Canadian business leaders as they embark on a concerted campaign to fortify ties with the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Canada-U.S. trade faces ‘critical moment’ that demands urgent action, businesses warn

Will fall to Canada to ensure its best interests are represented

Two RCMP officers observe a moment of silence to honour slain Const. Heidi Stevenson and the other 21 victims of the mass killings at a checkpoint on Portapique Road in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
RCMP under scrutiny one year after mass killing that left 22 dead in Nova Scotia

Questions raised about why it took police 13 hours to stop mass killing

FILE-Team Canada’s Meaghan Mikkelson fights for control of the puck with U.S.A.’s Hayley Scamurra during third period of Women’s Rivalry Series hockey action in Vancouver, Wednesday, February 5, 2020. Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada’s director of women’s national teams, hopes a Rivalry Series against the United States can happen this winter.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer
Canadian women’s hockey team to open selection camp in Nova Scotia

Six goaltenders, 15 defenders and 26 forwards will vie for spots on Canada’s 23-player roster

FILE - Rhian Wilkinson, left, and Melissa Tancredi of Canada’s women’s soccer team attend a news conference in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 to announce their retirement from the team. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson now part of England coaching setup

Wilkinson left Canada Soccer in January to join interim England head coach Hege Riise as an assistant

Canadian actor/producer/director Jay Baruchel is photographed at the 5 Drive-In Theatre in Oakville, Ont., ahead of the premier of Baruchel’s movie Random Acts of Violence, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
Jay Baruchel to host Amazon Prime Video’s ‘LOL: Last One Laughing Canada’

Final comedian left standing wins a grand prize for a charity of their choice

Letter: Leaders like MLA Jason Stephan should work towards greater good

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan talks about the devastating social and… Continue reading

Opinion: Women, hit hardest by pandemic, key to economic recovery

Events of the past year have laid bare the many disparities and… Continue reading

Children at the Port Angeles Boys & Girls Club practice social distancing throughout the day to minimize the spreading of germs and potentially the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula
Opinion: Teach young people these five principles

At all ages, young people may be the subject of mean behaviours… Continue reading

LtE bug
Letter: MLAs need to think about all Albertans

I was surprised to find more than a dozen UCP MLAs were… Continue reading

Most Read