The COVID-19 outbreak has spread rapidly across the globe, leaving unprecedented social, political and economic dislocation in its wake. Despite the delay, Canada too is now feeling its impact.
As of now, more than 190 people have been diagnosed with the virus in Canada. This is likely an underestimate given the absence of wide-scale testing. The real figure is undoubtedly much higher and growing. Ontario and B.C. have so far made up the bulk of cases. However, Alberta and Quebec are not far behind them, followed closely by Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Maritimes. The virus has so far claimed only one victim, although this too is likely to increase. As shown by Italy, the situation can go from stable to critical in a matter of days. According to some analysts, North America may be just weeks behind Italy, if not days.
In response, the federal government has shut down the House of Commons and Senate for five weeks. Justin Trudeau himself is in self-isolation after learning that his wife contracted COVID-19. Ontario and Quebec have shut down most public schools, while a number of provinces are discouraging gatherings of over 250 people. B.C. has called on retired doctors to return to their practices, in anticipation of the increased strain on health services. These measures are no doubt just the beginning.
As the virus spread in Canada, markets took note. On “Black Monday,” the S&P/TSX Composite Index fell by 10.3 per cent, the largest one-day drop since 1987. Oil shares were hit particularly hard, with firms like Meg Energy Corp. and Cenovus falling by more than 50 per cent. Three days later, the TSX fell yet again, this time collapsing by more than 12 per cent—the worst drop since the Second World War. Oil prices, meanwhile, fell from over $50 a week ago to just over $30 today.
The upending of global supply chains, combined with the collapsing price of oil, all but guarantees that Canada will fall into recession over the next period. In Alberta, oil sands producers have already announced steep cuts in capital investment. These include firms like Cenovus and Seven Generations Energy, which have announced cuts of up to $600 million and $200 million, respectively. Other sectors will announce similar cuts in the coming days, particularly those linked to global trade.
As in 2009, the state has been forced to intervene as a result. On Thursday, the Bank of Canada announced a multi-billion dollar injection into the market to keep it afloat. This came just hours after a similar announcement by the Federal Reserve of a $1.5 trillion injection into the U.S. market. However, even this was not enough.
On Friday, the Bank of Canada announced it would also lower its lending rate to 0.75 per cent, from 1.75 per cent just over a week ago. In addition, the federal government would offer $10 billion in credit for targeted businesses, while banks would be given access to $300 billion in emergency funds. In response, stocks have partially rebounded, although this will likely be temporary given the underlying uncertainty in the global market.
What about the workers?
However, the government has shown less concern for Canada’s workers than it has for big business.
As of now, most of Canada is woefully unprepared for a large uptick in COVID-19 cases. In Ontario, hospitals are already over capacity, with many patients being treated in hallways. One study revealed that five hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area exceeded 100 per cent capacity almost every day for the first half of 2019. In the Maritimes, where the population is much older (and thus at greater risk), hospital emergency rooms have closed in recent months due to austerity measures.
In a 2018 OECD study, Canada ranked 35th out of 42 countries for the number of hospital beds per capita, numbering only 2.5 per 1000 inhabitants. Even a slight uptick in hospital admissions would test the limits of Canada’s health-care system, forcing physicians to choose between those who receive care and those who do not.
Even then, the impacts of COVID-19 could be mitigated were the government to take other measures, such as providing workers with paid sick days, or providing universal tests for the virus, thereby relieving the pressure on hospitals. However, even this has not been done.
On Wednesday, the federal government unveiled its $1 billion “comprehensive package” to combat COVID-19. Of that total, only $5 million went directly to workers. Moreover, that figure is earmarked for EI payments, which more than 60 per cent of the unemployed don’t qualify for and which, even if they do receive it, only constitutes 55 per cent of their lost income for a limited period of time. As for sick leave, the federal government has offered nothing whatsoever.
In Ontario and B.C., where cases of COVID-19 are the highest, workers are currently offered little to no sick leave—let alone paid sick leave. As such, many will have no option but to go to work, even if they are sick, thus making it easier for the virus to spread.
To add insult to injury, many provincial governments have decided to close schools and daycares to stop the spread of infection, but have made absolutely no provisions for provincial employees or other workers to look after their children. These governments made the decision to enact these closures, and so are beholden to take the necessary action to deal with the repercussions. This should begin by offering full wage replacement for workers who are forced to take care of their children. However, this too has not been done.
Additionally, the government has rolled out too few tests for the virus, making it difficult to isolate cases before they spread. In Montreal, one woman reported that she was repeatedly denied a test despite having pneumonia-like symptoms. Stories like hers are not uncommon. By comparison, South Korea is conducting 20,000 tests per day, even offering drive-thru testing stations. In this respect too, the Canadian government lags far behind.
A product of capitalism
The COVID-19 pandemic is not simply a product of nature, but a product of capitalism. In reality, there is no reason why a modern society should be so threatened by a virus like COVID-19—and yet it is. Despite our advances in industry, science and technique, millions of lives now stand to be lost because of the parasitism of a few.
In Canada, decades of underfunding into our most basic needs, such as hospital beds, have now put tens of thousands needlessly at risk. And where did that money go? It went into the pockets of bankers, who then took it to gamble on the stock market. Now, having lost that money (in a crisis they created), they are demanding even more, just when Canadian workers need it most—not to gamble, but to survive. Trudeau, like Harper before him, is now prepared to give the bankers whatever they please, and to perhaps, maybe, provide the working class with whatever is left over—maybe.
And if that means the virus may spread? Oh well. The politicians and businessmen can isolate themselves for as long as they please, even if everyone else cannot. The important thing for them is to keep people working, production running, and profits expanding—at whatever the cost.
COVID-19 has now magnified this cruel logic for all to see—the logic of capitalism. The ensuing crisis, though devastating, will upturn consciousness in Canada like never before. Stubborn attitudes and prejudices will be shaken overnight. Before long, a new period of class struggle will emerge, in which the working class will “settle the score” with those who dragged them through this tragedy. This is the era now unfolding.
Speaking to the nation, Trudeau on Friday encouraged a “Team Canada effort” to fight COVID-19. In 2009, Canadian workers also sacrificed for the “team,” only to discover just one side was suffering. They won’t be fooled a second time.