National Post (National Edition)
The echoes of 2020 will be felt for ages
2020 will stay in the calendar as one of those years we will remember for a long, long time. It changed so much.
After the initial stumbling, on mask wearing, banning foreign flights, imposing restrictions on shopping and social gathering, events in Canada took a predictable turn.
Our governments went with the practice of every other government worldwide. They updated their advice on masking, went into the “flatten the curve” phase, gave the prescribed cautions about “essential” and “non-essential” gatherings. The difference between which, not incidentally, is yet to be fully or rationally explicated.
Such concerns as grocery stores, trucking services and pharmacies made the essential list. All else was verboten, though with the early assurance that these shutdowns were to be matters of weeks, not months, and certainly not for an entire year. “Hold tight, you'll last, all will be normal soon,” was the message.
It turned out that flattening the curve was but a temporary slogan, and restrictions on commerce went from purely temporary and a caution of the moment, to a long-term, near-continuous reality. They are still with us. Not even Christmas was spared.
Here in Ontario, for example, just days before Santa spoiled his white beard and red suit with all that soot from many a carbon-emitting chimney, a total lockdown for another 28 days was announced.
There are similarities everywhere in the country.
The lockdown responses to COVID may have been necessary, and brought about by the most prudential thinking, but the policy has not fallen on “the just and the unjust alike.” Or to be more precise, not fallen alike on those whose income was without jeopardy regardless of government policy, and those who were fully exposed, without backstop, to its consequences. Staying home on full income may have its stresses, but it is not as stressful as wondering whether you can keep your home if your business fails.
The obvious questions are these: How many businesses have been cut down? How many, after years of initiative and labour, are no more? How many owners now look upon a decade or more of working their small store, coffee shop, boutique operation — and face closure, bankruptcy and heartbreak?
How many low-wage earners have lost their work? How many of the staff at hotels and restaurants and retail stores and highway stops, the cleaners, the janitors, the waiters, late-night cashiers — how many of these have been cut off? How many students doing their best to earn a few bucks after school hours? All the CERBs in the world, being temporary, can have no answer for them.
These are not political questions, not ones of partisan import.
COVID has been an economic storm, the full violence of which we do not know, and will not at best for a year or two. We will be a long time learning these “other” costs, the non-medical — the psychological, economic, and personal costs — of those shutdowns.
It is worth repeating that none of this is to say that the motives or impulses that led to the lockdowns were wrong or inspired by anything but a genuine concern for the general public. Yet, it is to say that there is a lot of present misery, and misery in store, from the handling of this crisis yet to be disclosed and acknowledged.
At the governmental level, COVID wrought huge changes.
It brought us Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's morning descent of the steps of Confederation Cottage, and then before select scribes of the Ottawa press gallery descriptions of each day's vast withdrawals from the national treasury. Mr. Trudeau put the deficit on his own private moon launch; such acceleration has not been seen outside rockets or a certain Warner Brothers cartoon, featuring the ACME Corporation, a sad coyote, and a desert blur.
It all took place within something close to a parliamentary vacuum. There was no budget. There is still not one. Committees were shut down, or rendered useless by filibuster and obstruction. Accountability was returned to its eunuch function as a mere word in the dictionary. What is even more worrisome than the degrading or bypassing of all normal Parliamentary function, was how it was so easily, so mildly, accepted by the public.
The official Opposition was very greatly undercut in its ability to question, oversee and force some accountability. The silent or not so silent pact between the NDP and the Liberals has effectively enabled the minority Liberals to act as a superpower majority. Events that would mightily shake any government in normal times — the departure of its finance minister under a conflict-of-interest cloud will do as illustration — barely lasted for a day's headlines.
And there is the money. Canada went from a $40-billion deficit to a $400-billion one in less than a year. And, it now also wears a national debt well in excess of a trillion dollars.
An accumulation of deficit and debt on this scale, parcelled out with minimal to no accountability, fired off in all directions under the pressures of each passing moment during a crisis, carries severe implications for the future. What is spent today must be paid back tomorrow. There will not be a choice, and with any major change in the economies of the world, which we can also expect, the day of payback will not be as hospitable as the day of spending.
There will be cutbacks. There will be reductions in services. There will be a harsh reckoning.
So Canadians, frustrated by the conditions of our new national “normal” and awaiting the moment when the old “normal” returns, are, alas, likely to be frustrated in that hope. Whatever returns will not resemble what went before.
The measures brought in to respond to COVID have vast future implications for both Canadian citizens and their government. 2020 has been an emphatically milestone year. Events of this year will determine the shape of many years to come.