There’s no going back to the pre-pandemic economy

Everything is under the microscope now. Not just the virus that causes COVID-19 but the society we created for ourselves, and it.

The threat of COVID-19, the symptoms and the public safety measures we need to take to flatten the curve should by this point be well-understood by the public. Less understood, but becoming more tangible with time, are the impacts the global pandemic may have on economies. The International Monetary Fund now warns that it will be “way worse” than the 2008 crisis, making it potentially the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.

So far, discussions about the pandemic and the economy have failed to move beyond the most basic idea that economic growth has been temporarily halted, and that the economy needs to get going again. Missing from this discussion is how economies shape population health outcomes in communities, regions, and countries.

It is well understood that poverty is one of the determinants of health, but that doesn’t mean economic growth for the sake of economic growth naturally leads to a healthier population. As the University of Michigan’s Jose Granados and Ana Diez Roux point out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Great Depression itself was less harmful on population health outcomes (suicides notwithstanding) than economic booms that bookended it.

The economy as we knew if before the global pandemic grew for a solid decade, but it was far from perfect. Chronic and preventable diseases increased rapidly alongside it to become the dominant challenge of population health policymakers today. At a more granular level Alberta’s oil patch, lionized as a wellspring of prosperity in Canada, is connected to the rest of the country by what is known as the Highway of Death, where shift workers race at breakneck speeds to spend their money in the larger cities of the south, while rural and Indigenous communities nearby this massive industrial project suffer a host of negative health effects from the pollution it causes.

We cannot give economic development a free pass just because we know poverty is a determinant of health. The public we serve deserves that policymakers be more deliberate about what a healthy economy means in the context of a healthy population overall.

The pre-pandemic economy and the grossly asymmetrical accumulations of wealth within it was also deeply inequitable along the lines of gender, race, ability and age.

Cities touted as economic successes, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, faced perpetual affordability crises while those left out, especially rural and Indigenous communities, faced perpetual boil water advisories and diseases of despair.

This was an economy that flooded the world with precarious low-paying gig work that lacked benefits and worker protections and rewarded real-estate speculators for turning local housing into their personal AirBnB empires– which now languish on Craigslist. (To see a snapshot of how the public feels about Air BnB hosts getting bailed out in Canada see Andy Yan’s eyebrow raising twitter poll)

It was an economy that maintained a persistent gender pay gap while spewing an eon worth of stored carbon fossil fuels into the atmosphere in a geological blink of an eye, worsening the growing climate emergency.

In a few short generations this economy spread across the globe, not unlike the virus that has now brought it to its knees, and a diverse tapestry of countries signed on, sometimes willingly sometimes at the barrel of a gun, to become part of a disposable consumer culture which left a swirling continent of garbage in the Pacific Ocean and vast geographies of forest, the lungs of the planet, scorched and stripped like the lungs of those suffering the worst effects of COVID-19 in hospitals around the world.

It is from this perspective that I believe one of the greatest tragedies to potentially come out of this pandemic, after the body count is tallied, after the mourning and profound trauma sinks in, would be for things to go back to the way they were.

Where does British Columbia, and Canada go from here?

As someone who works in population health policy, I’m worried about British Columbia rebuilding an economy that ‘gets going again,’ in the same direction we were headed before. That economy of yesterday created the conditions in which tackling this pandemic have been made more difficult, particularly in the United States.

Canada and BC haven’t eviscerated our social safety net to the degree the united states has over the past forty years, but we have millions of people servicing growing debts and living one paycheque away from not being able to pay rent and bills, including care workers themselves forced to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.

In the spirit of Tommy Douglas who once said “Courage my friends, ‘tis not too late to build a better world.” Novelist Arundhati Roy captured the current moment eloquently in a recent Financial Times piece on the economic and social chaos wreaked by the pandemic:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

How will British Columbia step through this portal, this gateway?

BC, by global standards, appears to be faring better in its response to the pandemic than many other jurisdictions, though its economy has all but ground to a halt in order that public health measures to create physical distance and isolation can prove their effects.

In order to address the economic shocks to the province the government has set up an Economic Recovery Task Force to help advise the Premier, Minister of Finance, Minister of Jobs Economic Development and Competitiveness and other members of cabinet on our recovery. It includes the Business Council of BC, the BC Chamber of Commerce, Vancouver Board of Trade, Surrey Board of Trade, the BC Federation of Labour, First Nations organizations and the non-profit sector (I believe represented by SUCCESS).

I applaud the government for including First Nations organizations, labour, and the non-profit sector – in many other jurisdictions such a table might be limited to chambers of commerce and boards of trade alone.

However, my concern is whether this group has been tasked with advising the government on how it can help the economy recover and rebound, or how it can create an economy that helps British Columbians recover and rebound?

These would be two very different tasks.

What might B.C.’s place in the post-pandemic world look like?

The previous global economy, and the international system of rules-based liberal institutions that governed it, has lost its traditional pillar of leadership in the United States. While Donald Trump may very well be elected out of office in the near future, “Trumpism” or America’s brand of the recent populism that has taken root across the world is poised to linger like a mold over American domestic and foreign policy.

With this in mind, B.C. risks restarting an economy for a world that no longer exists.

When Trump invoked the War Powers Act to block Minnesota’s 3M from shipping face masks to Canada, masks that were bought and paid for, it was a clear sign that B.C. and Canada have to be prepared to be more self-sufficient in the 21st century. This includes strengthening our own food systems, building energy independence, and possibly even production of medical grade equipment like masks and gowns which are made from the very raw materials our pulp mills were built for. The latter are likely to be in increasing demand as spread of infectious disease has been forecasted to increase due the effects of climate change.

It’s time for us to repatriate some of these supply chains and invest in value-added manufacturing to reposition ourselves in the 21st century context. This doesn’t mean closing ourselves off to international trade and investment, but it does mean prioritizing some types of production in the interest of our own resilience and adaptability in a century that has already proven itself chaotic and unpredictable. We have what we need to do this. The materials, the people, the wealth, the creativity, the work ethic, and the lack of any reason not to, as the weaknesses and failures of the pre-pandemic economy have become so crystal clear at this moment.

It may also require us to stay home ourselves and circulate more of our money locally. Vacations may become staycations, if not at least trips closer afield. Suits me fine. I’ve lived in BC nearly my entire 41 years and still haven’t been to every region in this beautiful province. Wouldn’t mind visiting the Foothills and Badlands of Alberta again too for that matter.

Up and down our economy a great restructuring is on the horizon, in many ways it is already here. Various forms of emergency guaranteed income to address the tsunami of layoffs have appeared alongside a growing host of other measures, while massive adjustments to private sector and government balance sheets have put us in uncharted territory.

Everything is under the microscope now. Not just the virus but the society we created for ourselves, and it.

I hope the economic task force convened by the provincial government is looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the world that lies ahead, and not backwards at the normalcy of the world from three months ago which by its own measure seemed to fare well for many Canadians, but fell far short of supporting all of them. 

Because the long-term population health impacts of COVID-19 in B.C. communities won’t be from the disease itself but from the economy we build (or re-build) in its wake. We can build one that is more equitable, more sustainable, and more resilient, or we can re-build the one we just had and measure it with the outdated metrics that helped get us into this mess.

In my opinion, in order to do this we have to break out of the traditional mind-set that gives economic growth for the sake of growth a free pass. We have to be more deliberate about measuring economic success in the population health outcomes our economic policies engender or inhibit.

Thankfully there is a growing alliance across the world of people and organizations charting this path forward. Entire countries even re-orienting their national budgets to invest in economic prosperity that keeps human well-being front of mind. BC will not be alone in doing this work and many within our province have in fact been doing it for years.

For me, looking ahead, the choice is clear. There’s no going back to the pre-pandemic economy.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the fantastic article Wes. I’ve been contemplating this topic for the last few weeks. I totally agree there is a real opportunity to move in a new direction as we come out of this pandemic.

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