We can’t afford to reopen the economy backwards

The goal of "flattening the curve" was to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming our healthcare system. Mission accomplished. Now, it's time to start reopening.

WHY ARE CANADIANS LOCKED DOWN in their homes – largely disallowed from shopping or working or earning an income?

As we decide whether and how to lift the temporary pandemic restrictions imposed on Canadians, it’s critically important to remember why they were imposed in the first place.

“Social Distancing” was never intended to eliminate the COVID-19 virus. Its stated purpose was to “flatten the curve.”

We were told draconian measures were required to prevent the number of COVID-19 infections from skyrocketing faster than our hospitals could keep up. We aimed to slow the infection rate and spread it out into the future so its impact on our healthcare system, on any given day, was manageable.

The demand on Canada’s healthcare system has, so far, fallen short of even the “Best Case” scenarios envisioned by public health experts. That’s a good thing.

People are still being infected. They are still getting sick. And, they are still dying. But – with the exception of patients in seniors homes – the rate and frequency of infection, sickness and death are much lower than expected.

The measures were necessary. And, they worked. Mission accomplished. So, far.

But now, it’s the pandemic measures themselves that are hurting more people than the virus ever did.

Which restrictions should be relaxed first?

It’s time to dial back on the restrictions, before we do more damage to Canadians than the virus ever could.

Public health experts are advising government to first allow critically-important work to resume: non-COVID19 related hospital and clinic procedures, etc. Then businesses that support healthcare, healthy living, etc.

Macro economic experts want the most important operations to resume first, then other “less essential” services.

Most experts agree “frivolous” and “non-essential” businesses like restaurants, bars, concerts, sports, small shops and recreation amenities should open last.

In this, the experts are wrong.

The overarching principle that should guide government leaders as they decide how to reopen our economy should be simple: The first restrictions to be lifted should be those that are doing the most damage.

Millions of Canadians are being measurably and irreversibly harmed by the lockdown.

If you’re out of work because the government banned your job – and you don’t work for the public sector, or a large company that can suck up the loss of revenue and keep paying some or all of your wage – you’re in trouble. You’ve lost your job. Your income has been reduced to zero – save for a couple thousand dollars of government largesse that won’t last long.

It’s not surprising “expert advisors” underestimate the damage being done – few of them are living it themselves. But, millions of regular Canadians are being crippled by the cure to this disease.

Even if your bank or landlord defers your mortgage or rent payments, you will still owe that money. Your debts are mounting. You carry them the rest of your life. But, the wages you’ve lost are lost forever. You will never recover that lost income.

Employees and owners of small businesses are being hurt hardest

Already, it seems likely more than one third of Canada’s independent restaurants will never reopen. Many more will fail to survive in the new, shrunken economy that resumes. These are jobs lost permanently. These are family finances ruined indefinitely.

In a county where millions were already within $200 of bankruptcy according to study after study, it’s clear the “protective measures” we’ve taken to keep the virus manageable are sentencing millions to perpetual financial distress. Each day the lockdown continues, more fall off the cliff.

The longer we rob Canadians of their income, the worse this catastrophe will be.

Countless research has also shown a direct correlation between poverty and poor health. One study in Hamilton, Ontario found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between rich and poor neighbourhoods.

What a shame it would be to survive the coronavirus just to have decades cut from your lifespan because the lockdown forced your family into poverty.

Poverty robs us of life and hope as viciously as disease does.

Help first those who are suffering most

Those suffering the greatest harm from the lockdown should be the first allowed out of it.

People who aren’t working and not earning an income should be the first to return to work wherever possible. That’s likely restaurant staff, workers in small retail shops and small independent factories, etc. They won’t survive much more of this “medicine.”

Thereafter, open sectors of the economy and jobs that are suffering more than others.

Large office towers should be among the last places to reopen. They create a huge burden on our transportation network and cram thousands of people into small spaces. And many businesses in downtown office buildings are already effectively functioning with alternative arrangements.

In fact, any business or work function that has continued to operate remotely during the pandemic lockdown should the very last allowed to return to normal. In a prudent, logical world, these operations would never go back to the way they were.

Measured and managed phases still required

I’m not arguing for an immediate opening of the flood gates. Far from it.

We know that each time we reopen a new cohort of workers, we can expect infection and sickness rates to rise – then, stabilize and subside. If they rise too close to our capacity thresholds, we may have to hold – or retighten – for a bit. It’s going to be a bit like watching the weather and dressing/behaving accordingly. One hand always on the tiller to steer around turbulence.

But, it’s crucial we sequence the reopening to provide the fastest relief to those being harmed the most. That’s not the CEOs and the corporate lawyers, the government workers or healthcare executives. It’s the hourly-workers, the restaurant staff, the small shop clerks and small business owners.

Lockdown is ruining – and shortening – their lives as surely as the virus would.

After all, there’s no point surviving the virus, if it condemns your entire family to a slow, painful death from poverty.