The “reopening” of Canada’s economy is now underway—and a lot sooner than many would like it to.
Quebec was among the first to announce a detailed lift on lockdown restrictions. Half a million workers are being asked to return to work by May 11, while elementary schools are slated to reopen in the coming weeks—this despite the fact that Quebec leads Canada in both infections and deaths from COVID-19.
After some delay, Ontario and Alberta have now followed suit. Both provinces have announced their reopening for May 4, starting with leisure activities like golfing and boating. Alberta plans to open its restaurants and other businesses as early as May 14.
Most other provinces have announced a lifting of some restrictions, including Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick.
Canada’s premiers have declared a cautious victory over the virus. Hospitals have so far held up against the apocalyptic situation seen in Italy, Spain and the U.S. In most provinces, new cases of COVID-19 are on the decline. The premiers, having been first reluctant to shut down their economies, are now touting their achievements.
But these measures, they say, have served their purpose. “In many parts of the country, the curve has flattened,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says. And if new cases should spike? Premiers from B.C. to P.E.I. assure us that measures are in place, from testing to enforced social distancing, to nip it in the bud.
The “invisible enemy” has been dealt a fatal blow, and Canada’s defences are up, at least according to its leaders. This would indeed be a comforting victory—if it were true.
Flattening the curve?
Start with new cases. Ontario Premier Doug Ford previously suggested that his province should wait until it registered at least a two-to-four week decline in new cases before reopening. Medical experts seemed to agree. However, many provinces, including Ontario, have so far failed to meet this target.
Some may not be experiencing declines at all, despite still being in lockdown. On May 1, Quebec reported its highest daily increase of deaths since the pandemic began. That same day, Saskatchewan recorded its largest single-day increase in more than a month. In Alberta, an outbreak was recently reported at a large Amazon warehouse, following a string of high-profile outbreaks in meat packing facilities.
In Ontario, Ford went further to suggest that restrictions should not be lifted before new cases drop to 200 per day. Still, Ontario is now reopening despite figures being more than double that amount. In long-term care homes, the situation is worse still. Two hundred and five are facing outbreaks, up from 114 just two weeks ago.
However, even if cases were to decline significantly, there are no guarantees that the virus would not return. In Singapore, where both testing and contact tracing are done at higher levels than in Canada, COVID-19 was thought to be eradicated until recently. That country is now experiencing a second wave of infections.
The WHO has said that, until a vaccine is discovered, countries will have to implement mass testing, rigorous contact tracing and social distancing to keep infections low. They will also require an ample supply of protective equipment. On each of these counts, Canada lags behind.
Testing for COVID-19 has been heralded as one of Canada’s “strong suits.” The figures suggest otherwise. One expert suggested that Canada could require as many as 500,000 tests per day to get the virus under control. Trudeau has so far set a target of just 60,000 a day. Even then, Canada is currently testing only half that amount.
Ontario and Quebec have been particularly slow. Ford has voiced his “frustration” at Ontario repeatedly missing its targets. Quebec’s testing rate has actually fallen. The province is currently carrying out 6,000 tests per day, despite there being capacity for 15,000.
Ramping up testing is not impossible. Germany conducts 900,000 tests per week—as many as Canada has conducted during the entire pandemic. “That’s where you want to be. And if you’re not there then it’s insanely foolish and negligent to do what [Quebec Premier François] Legault is talking about,” said one medical expert on the German figures.
Canada is no better at contact tracing. In order to minimize infections, those who come in contact with carriers of COVID-19 must be immediately identified, then directed to isolate. To do this effectively requires large numbers of “contact tracers,” those who identify potential carriers, as well as the help of advanced technology.
John Hopkins University estimates that the U.S. may require 260,000 additional contact tracers to limit the spread in that country. In Wuhan, China, the place of origin for COVID-19, an estimated 9,000 tracers were devoted to that city alone. If Canada were to require a comparable amount, it would mean employing at least 20,000 for the job. As of recently, most provinces had only a few dozen contact tracers on their payroll.
Alberta has announced a new, voluntary-use app to help locate contacts via Bluetooth. However, experts say these apps are only effective if at least 60 per cent of people use them. In Iceland, where usage of such apps is among the highest in the world, only 40 per cent or so have downloaded them.
Canada has also struggled to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE). In a recent survey of physicians, 25 per cent say that shortages of PPE have gotten worse, while 40 per cent have seen no change. In the media, stories abound of planes destined for China and its PPE products returning home empty-handed.
Even social distancing may prove difficult. Many business owners have failed to introduce safety measures due to the cost, and may continue doing so. Premiers may also prove unwilling to enforce them.
Ontario’s new guidelines for social distancing in the workplace make numerous recommendations. Few of them are mandatory. For those that are, business owners face only a $750 fine for violation—a drop in the bucket for most large companies.
Canada’s lack of preparation makes it dangerous to safely reopen its economy in the coming months, let alone the coming days. Doing so risks inviting a second wave of infections—and one even deadlier than the first if appropriate measures aren’t taken.
Why then are restrictions being lifted? Ford complained recently of being “lobbied hard by so many different groups and organizations” to end the lockdown. Since day one, Canada’s leaders have faced pressure from big business to lift the restrictions. The lockdown has put a dent in their profits, as have new safety measures. Moreover, as other countries reopen, Canada’s corporations fear that their competitors may gain an advantage over them. Hence the almost simultaneous opening of economies around the world, regardless of their state of public health.
Of course, the lockdown can’t remain in place forever—nor should it. However, to safely reopen would require mass testing, robust contact tracing and appropriate safety measures, all of which the capitalists and their state have been unwilling or unable to provide.
The capitalists, however, cannot wait. Their profits must be “liberated,” even if that means exposing an entire country to COVID-19. In any case, they can sleep at night knowing that someone else—an assembly line worker, a cashier, a waitress—will die for their noble cause. With a vaccine still 12 to 18 months away, the number of victims has potential to skyrocket.
On the workers’ terms
The decision of how and when to reopen is one of life and death. It should not be made by those whose only interest is accumulating wealth, as it is for the capitalists. Who then should make it? Those whom that decision most affects: the workers on the front line.
No business should be reopened before those who work there give it clearance to. For this purpose, workers should form safety committees to inspect their workplaces, and be empowered to issue orders to their bosses when standards aren’t met.
The labour movement should demand that the state undertake a mass program to hire and train the unemployed as contact tracers, paid for out of the cash reserves of the large corporations. This should start with banks that have charged double interest on mortgages during the pandemic. If they refuse, their assets should be seized under emergency powers. Factories capable of producing testing components should be taken over, then retooled to boost production as during times of war. If factories can produce tanks, as many did during the Second World War, they can produce nasal swabs.
The capitalists want to reopen the economy on their terms, and at our expense. We too want to reopen the economy: on the workers’ terms, and at the capitalists’ expense.
If not, Canada’s “grand reopening” risks becoming a grand disaster.