By Robert Macrae
When I reflect on Canada’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, it’s not perfect, but good.
Our government has listened to doctors, scientists and public health professionals to develop an emergency response that is getting us through the crisis while minimizing harm to those at greatest risk.
Our government is being unprecedentedly agile with rapid responses, accommodating the homeless in improvised shelters, offsetting lost wages and rent, temporarily expanding the social safety net targeting those with most pressing needs, supporting essential services, coordinating healthcare and social services to best respond after years of underfunding, and not insignificantly, listening to Canadians to assess its successes and shortcomings.
For our part, we’re following direction and accepting that in these exceptional circumstances, we must subordinate personal freedoms in the short-term in exchange for longer-term collective interests.
Canada’s response relative to other countries, in terms of confirmed COVID cases, COVID deaths, percent mortality, COVID tests, flattening the curve, loosening restrictions, isn’t perfect, but compares well.
Our staunch commitment to universal healthcare aids our success against COVID. During early 20th century polio outbreaks, Canada adopted publicly supported treatment for all the afflicted. In contrast, other countries provided care only to those who could afford it. This consigned the poor to charities or no treatment. In such countries, polio victims in private hospitals fared better than those treated by charities. Those unable to afford private care or without access to charities fared worst. This difference between Canada and other countries reflects the economic debate of the late 20th century, “How regulated should a capitalist or market economy be?”
In Canada, we accept less regulated markets in some economic sectors and more regulated markets in others. We employ less regulated markets for purchases where we have a choice: “What kind of car”, or clothes, or house, or food should we buy?” In such cases, a less regulated market is reasonable. We have choices including “not to buy” and we’re unharmed regardless of our decision.
In cases when “not to buy” causes personal or community harm, such as education, social services, public safety, safe drinking water, sewage treatment, healthcare including, as we’re learning, elder care, a less regulated market creates disparities based on wealth. Economists call this a “market failure.”
Because of market failures, Canadians don’t support free, unregulated markets. Canadians recognize instances when a public “natural monopoly” offers the greatest benefit to the greatest number. As Linda McQuiag describes in her outstanding book, “The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth,” Canada has a successful history with public enterprises in sectors such as education, healthcare, utilities, and transit where free markets fail.
It’s discriminatory to offer less education or a poorer standard of healthcare to people with less wealth. We’re entitled to equal access to the best education, the best healthcare, the safest drinking water, the cleanest environment regardless of our health, wealth, ethnicity, religion, gender, or age.
Our entitlement is not just idealistic, it’s cost-effective as the COVID-19 pandemic is proving. Where we’ve skimped or cut wages, benefits, and hours for community care workers, we’re seeing the tragic effects. Overall, the cost of Canadian universal healthcare as a percentage of GDP is lower than in countries with private healthcare or a two tier system while our healthcare outcomes, including our COVID-19 outcomes aside from long-term care homes, although not perfect, are better.
Canada’s good, not perfect, response to COVID-19, like Canada’s good, not perfect, response to polio, will get us back to a new, post-COVID-19 normal more quickly, more safely, at a lower cost in dollars, and more importantly, at a lower cost in lives lost, than a less regulated market strategy.
Let’s keep washing our hands and maintaining physical distances. Together, we can vanquish the virus. We’ll emerge wiser individually and collectively to discuss what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and to debate Canada’s future, not good, but perfect direction.
Robert M. Macrae, Castlegar.