Trudeau on Wednesday announced his new $82 billion aid package to cope with the fallout of COVID-19. The package includes $27 billion in direct support to the unemployed and businesses, as well as $55 billion in tax deferrals. In normal times, $82 billion would be seen as an extraordinary sum. However, these are not normal times, and Trudeau’s recent measures may be too little, too late.
$82 billion in context
The delivery of this package raises a series of questions, namely: why has it taken so long? Health officials have repeatedly pointed out that early measures are crucial for limiting the spread of COVID-19. And yet, weeks after the pandemic was declared, Trudeau is only now preparing significant aid to the unemployed.
Trudeau has argued that such measures take time. But if so, why then did he announce $10 billion for business on March 13—that is, five days before the recent package? In fact, Trudeau did have the ability to react sooner. He simply chose to prioritize business over everyone else.
The measures themselves, meanwhile, still fall short of what is required. Highlights include the new Emergency Care Benefit (ECB), which provides financial support for those unqualified for paid sick leave or EI, as well as a boost to the Canada Child Benefit (CCB).
However, the ECB will only provide up to $900 bi-weekly, meaning that many of its recipients will be earning below the minimum wage, while the CCB hike amounts to only $300 per child on average. Moreover, these payments will only be made available by April at the earliest, leaving many without pay until then.
Trudeau has also so far neglected to implement a nationwide rent suspension, which will make it difficult for many to pay their bills even with this recent support. As such, some may still find it necessary to go into work—thus allowing the virus to spread.
No money for hospitals, tests
Perhaps more importantly, Trudeau’s announcement did not include any new money for hospitals or testing kits. This may prove his most tragic decision yet.
Due to the delay in funding, cities like Toronto and Ottawa have already reported cases of local transmission of COVID-19. If the virus is circulating locally, it will be more difficult to prevent its spread. Local transmission is also likely occurring in other parts of the country. Before long, this will place an incredible burden on Canada’s hospitals, one they are presently unequipped to cope with.
Canada’s current number of hospital beds per capita is among the lowest in the OECD—lower even than Italy’s. Already, a handful of Maritime provinces have been forced to move elderly patients out of hospitals to make space, while surgeries considered “non-urgent” are being cancelled.
Alberta and British Columbia may be particularly hard hit. Both have the lowest ratio of hospital beds and ventilators in the country, with numbers on par with Iran. Ontario’s hospitals, meanwhile, routinely treated patients in hallways even before the emergence of COVID-19.
Due to the shortage of services, Canadian doctors are already warning that they may soon have to choose between who receives care and who does not. In a recent National Post article, one doctor warned of such a scenario:
We have told the government for 25 years now, and critically for the last 20 years, that hospital crowding has to be a priority and increasing bed capacity to allow surge capacity, and they have been wilfully blind and studiously ignorant to the issue and now the chickens may well come home to roost.
We may dodge a big bullet here. This may be all about not very much, and that would be fantastic. But we may well end up in a situation where we have to make some very tough ethical decisions about who gets the ventilator.
Wide-scale testing for COVID-19 may help to reduce hospital admissions by isolating cases early. This seems to have been effective in South Korea, where the virus has been curtailed. The World Health Organization (WHO) now says that the priority for countries is to “test, test, test.” On this count too, Trudeau’s response lags behind.
Canada has so far conducted 42,000 tests for the virus, having recently ramped-up testing. However, testing kits are still in short supply. By one estimate, Canada is carrying out one-fifth as many tests as South Korea, showing the gap that still exists. In order to have a decisive effect, the production of testing kits must be ramped-up further and without delay. Trudeau has yet to say how, or if, he will do so.
Desperate times, desperate measures
Trudeau’s recent aid package falls short of what’s required by Canadian workers. Moreover, given the delay in its introduction, it may not halt the spread of COVID-19. The emergence of local transmission, as well as the lacklustre state of Canada’s hospitals, means that more drastic measures must now be taken to avert catastrophe.
Sadly, Trudeau’s overriding concern for big business has slowed that response—with horrific results. It cannot be any other way. Trudeau, like all capitalist politicians, is prepared to take any and all measures to halt the virus, provided they don’t supersede the interests of Bay Street. However, in order to mount an effective response, measures must be taken that violate those interests. Trudeau will only do so if he’s faced with enormous pressure from below.
Therefore, the labour movement must demand that emergency measures be taken to address the crisis. Non-essential work must be stopped, with those unemployed being compensated at full pay—not ECB or EI poverty rates. Essential work should be paused temporarily to ensure that health standards are met, subject to workers’ oversight. The creation of hospital beds, ventilators and testing kits must be massively expanded, with corporations, and not ordinary people, forced to bear the cost. Factories capable of producing medical equipment must be seized, re-tooled, and used to facilitate this expansion as during times of war.
At this hour, nothing less will suffice. Capitalism has already proven its inability to halt the pandemic. Its restrictions must be gotten rid of so that millions may survive. The profits of the rich are not more important than our lives.