Who Will We Hold Accountable?

June is here and the summer promises to be hot, sunny and inviting. Yet Canadians are still struggling with the pandemic, with daily numbers still in the 100s of new cases and the curve being bent slowly. Far from crushing the pandemic or setting up a robust testing and tracing system Canadians are being reprimanded for being to close to each other in parks and watching the mayor of Toronto walk around incapable of wearing a mask properly.

These results are not nationally representative, but regionally specific. Quebec is currently the worst affected province, with Montreal the country’s epicentre for the virus. Ontario fairs only a little better, while the rest of the country is beginning to move to reopening. In all, while Canada largely sidestepped an out of control spike, we have failed to bring the virus under control.

Fighting the pandemic has taken an enormous financial and emotional toll, to citizens, to cities, and to the economy. Economic lifeboats to offset the worst of the effects have cost in the hundreds of billions and will represent a sizeable financial burden for the foreseeable future. That cost has been born willingly, with people foregoing seeing relatives and friends, risking the survival of businesses, and saying goodbye to loved ones who died in hospital alone, all in an effort to smother a new and existential threat to our well being.

But Canadians will be right to wonder whether our governments maximized our response and put our consent to be governed to good use, or did they squander it in bizarre and foolish ways? I’m sorry to say that it’s probably the latter.

Cast your mind back to March (roughly 100 years ago) and recall that the minister of health, Patty Hajdu had insisted that the coronavirus posed a minimal risk to Canadians. Questions about whether we should be wearing masks were dismissed as misguided and the idea that closing borders to people travelling to places that had been Covid-19 hotspots was considered useless or potentially even discriminatory.

What an innocent time.

Today masks are recommended (sort of) albeit reluctantly, borders are largely closed and social distancing is not simply a recommendation, but mandatory and enforced by private businesses. Concerns about racism have been buried under a growing mountain of evidence that China actively misled the world about the severity of the new epidemic while simultaneously buying as much personal protective equipment as it could.

Given the conceivable difficulty with getting people to “socially distance” responsibly, something that people have never done in a society accustomed to largely doing what it likes with little fear from its government, the political opposition to masks has remained particularly puzzling. What has struck people as one of the most simple and straightforward ways to improve safety by embracing an obvious form of precaution has been regularly opposed by every public health official for all kinds of reasons right up to the moment that they decided that it was a good idea.

Other concerns about our government’s handling of the pandemic seem even worse. Though Ontario and Canada at large were meant to be better prepared as a result of the SARS outbreak, at every turn it seems that its quite the opposite. The national stockpile turns out to not have been much of a stockpile at all. Ontario’s own stockpile was largely destroyed in 2013 when it was supposed to expire and not replaced at the time (in a cruel twist of irony that expiry date was revealed to likely have been too early). In a recent interview, when Dr. Theresa Tam was asked whether concerns over pandemic preparedness had been presented to the cabinet she was cut off by the Minister of Health and reminded that all conversations with the cabinet are private.

The only thing that might have made up for all these missteps would have been an effective test and trace system that would have over-tested the population so that it could get out ahead of the virus and proactively isolated carriers. By comparison testing remains well below where it needs to be to accomplish this. In fact, to get a clear sense of just how far behind we are on the testing consider that in Ethiopia (ETHIOPIA!) the capital is testing people door-to-door! Meanwhile, here in Toronto it’s unclear whether you should even go in for testing or just stay home.

This isn’t a political rant. I’m under no illusions that another party or another leader might have made better or more decisive decisions. If anything multiple parties are to blame for the failed efforts to deal with the pandemic at every level of government. If I needed to find a single example that encapsulated the level of this failure, please consider that last week the Toronto Star reported that the TTC was trying to find out if they could legally enforce wearing masks on buses and subways! Months after a pandemic has ravaged people’s lives and eroded billions in wealth, only now does the TTC aim to see if it can enforce the most basic form of prevention for buses and subways. Even a cursory glance at where most of Toronto’s cases have been are aligned with poorer neighbourhoods that depend on more public transit.

These questions aren’t academic, and they aren’t partisan. The stakes are very real and the crisis will have a long reach into the future. Canadians have spent the last decade acquiring sizeable debt anchored by home values, with governments and banks happy to pretend that this debt was a form of wealth. Today the financial situation looks considerably worse, and one way to mitigate the damage to the economy would be to reopen the economy with confidence. Sadly, in the hands of our existing political class, such a thing remains out of reach.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Journal of a Plague Year – In Defense of the Lockdown

Plague Year

While curves continue to be bent and geopolitics continues to become both more silly and more frightening than anyone ever thought possible, populations of countries remain unsure and troubled about whether they have made the correct choice of trying to beat COVID-19 through lockdowns and aggressive social distancing. Predictions of economic doom run rampant, ranging from serious recessions to the potential for a depression not unlike that of the 1930s.

With nothing to do but sit at home and twiddle our thumbs, either letting our house fall into total chaos or be cleaner than ever (a battle largely determined by how tired I am and how many cookies my kids have had) making predictions and considering alternative paths to beating this virus occupy considerable mental space. How will we know whether the unprecedented steps we have taken were the correct steps to take? What dark and strange future awaits us on the other side? I’m here to put your mind at ease, both because this situation is not unprecedented, and because we may not have had any other choice.

Let’s start with precedent. In an interview with Australian talk show host John Anderson, historian Niall Ferguson mused that future historians would regard our response to the pandemic as a mistake. This is an understandable position given the continued uncertainty around much of the virus. Is it very dangerous? Does it only affect the elderly? Do we even know how many people have it? Undoubtedly the biggest threat from the virus is what we don’t know about it.

But the assumption that it is the lockdown that is hindering the economy are belied by the available evidence. For instance, Sweden has been a focus through much of this since it hasn’t locked down its economy fully. Though schools have been closed and people have been advised to socially distance, restaurants and bars have been allowed to remain open. But estimates are that business has dropped off dramatically. In fact, despite having more of their economy not under lock and key does not seem to have materially changed the country’s fate, with early economic predictions of the contractions expected to be around 7% of GDP. That’s in line with other European neighbors.

In a similar story, the state of Georgia’s efforts to open early were met with disappointing results. People, worried about a virus that has a surprising amount of variability and high level of infection simply don’t want to go axe throwing, drink in crowded bars and go bowling. With the virus still being prevalent the thing restricting economic activity is not the lockdown, it is the virus.

Much is being made of the 1918 Spanish Influenza and this is an understandable place to jump to; the last memorable global pandemic that seriously interrupted the lives of people. Economists studying that event have concluded that “cities that implemented early and extensive non pharmaceutical interventions (like physical distancing and forbidding large gatherings) suffered no adverse economic effects over the medium term. On the contrary, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experienced a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided.” Other lessons drawn from the 1918 pandemic were not to give up too early on restrictions and that a multi-layered approach was what worked best.

But precedent exists much farther back. In Daniel Defoe’s work “Memories of a Plague Year”, a book once thought to be a work of fiction, but now believed to be based on the diaries of Defoe’s uncle who lived through the last great plague in London of 1665, all the hallmarks of our modern response can be found in that bygone era. Wealthier people escaping to their cottages? From Defoe: “It is true, a vast many people fled, as I have observed, yet they were chiefly from the West End of the Town; and from that we call the Heart of the City, that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people.”

220px-Great_plague_of_london-1665

How about our daily obsession to see if the curve is “being bent” and watching the infection rates? In 1665 concern over the spread of the plague (called the distemper) caused people to look “towards the east end of town; and the weekly Bills showing the Increase of Burials in St. Giles’s Parish…the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles’s in the fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn, were from 12 to 17 or 19 each, few more or less; but from the time that the Plague first began in St. Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably.”

What of economic activity? It has been estimated that somewhere between 25%-30% of the economy has been restricted, but in 1665 “All Master Workmen in Manufactures; especially such as belonged to Ornament, and the less necessary parts of the people’s dress, cloths, and furniture for houses; such as Riband Weavers, and other Weavers; Gold and Silverlace-makers, and…Seemstresses, Milleners, Shoemakers, Hat-makers and Glove Makers: also Upholserers, Joiners, Cabinet-Makers, Looking Glass Makers; and innumerable trades which depend upon such as these; I say the Master Workmen in such , stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen, and all their dependents.” You get the idea. The economy shut down.

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Worried that people believe lunatic conspiracies, burning 5G towers across the world? Conspiracies depend on context, and in 1665 there were plenty of people pushing nonsense ideas, including astrologers spinning stories, and a host of charlatans that were “a worse sort of deceivers…for these petty thieves only deluded them to pick their pockets, and get their money; in which their wickedness, whatever it was, lay chiefly on the side of the deceiver’s deceiving, not upon the deceived.” Amulets, charms and potions, signs of the zodiac and any number of other bogus ways to defend the person from the plague were sold widely to a gullible public desperate for protection.

Great LevelerBut what of the predictions we keep hearing about? That life will be forever changed by the events we’re living through? While I have a great deal more to say about the nature of prognostication, I’ll keep my comments here brief. In general history shows that humans don’t tend towards radical changes following big, but temporary upheavals. Instead, crises like the one we are living through emphasize existing weaknesses within the society.

In his book “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty First Century”, author Walter Scheidel points out that during the first big years of the plague, which came in the 1300s, the high death rates from plague changed the existing relationship between land and labour. For a society of feudal serfs this meant that serfs could demand wages from their lords, and the lords felt compelled to pay lest their lands remain fallow. Behaviours changed too, but only in as much that hedonism and charity increased to match the scale of the devastation people were living through. In response to our own situation charity, certainly that sanctioned by the government, has been widespread. Whether we might count the volume of baking as a form of hedonism will be left to others to decide.

Wages & Covid

But we should largely discount predictions of an economy collapsing and a society that will not wish to do anything ever again. Cruise ships, house sales, air traffic and eating out will return as confidence returns, though there will be losses along the way. But the real damage to the economy, and the people within it, will likely remain along lines that have already been established. As fewer Canadians work in good manufacturing jobs and more work in the service sector, earning marginal wages, they will continue to take the brunt of the economic hit of the lockdown. Just as likely will be that efforts to decouple production from China will lead to greater automation in manufacturing. In other words, more of the ingredients at the heart of the widening inequality gap.

The response to the coronavirus feels novel, to us. But in the scheme of history there doesn’t seem to be many other viable options. Life will return to normal not when the lockdowns are lifted, but when the virus is gone. But if we’re going to do something with our time it would be better spent figuring out how we’re going to address a worsening crisis of inequality, or brace ourselves for the next round of populist agitation.

Black Death 1

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.