The price of everything and the value of nothing

The Trudeau government has made mistakes, learned, and adjusted while trying to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic. Other world leaders have stuck their heads in the sand, and their citizens have paid with their lives.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has already borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars to send to Canadians and businesses harmed by public lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows how long the virus will remain a threat to public safety. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

HALIFAX—The King of Quip once said that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde could have been writing about how some people are reacting to the staggering sums run up in Canada’s fight against COVID-19. The Trudeau government is on track to post a deficit of $343.2-billion, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau said that spending could go even higher. By the end of the fiscal year next March, the government could spend $469-billion more than it planned to when it last set spending targets in December, 2019.

Those are unimaginably huge numbers that have understandably raised more than a few eyebrows. Fitch Ratings, one of the Big Three U.S. credit rating agencies, downgraded the country’s rating from AAA to AA+. But Canada’s debt ceiling still enjoys a triple-A rating with Fitch, as does it short-term debt.

That hasn’t stopped elements of the political opposition from howling about irresponsible spending and a lack of government transparency. Some people are legitimately terrified about the long-term impact on the economy, about rising deficit and debt numbers, and the country’s weakened fiscal position.

No one likes the prospect of a 10 percent unemployment rate that may linger on for years. No one likes to see borders closed, or airline routes cancelled, or no tourists. But part of the hue and cry over the raw costs of fighting the pandemic, dizzying as they are, is politics, plain and simple. And myopic politics at that.

Most of what some are calling a fiscal “bloodbath” has been spent on two programs: the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). CERB is the program that gives $2,000 per month to Canadians who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. CEWS gives beleaguered employers 75 percent of employee wage costs.

The government expects both programs to cost more than its original estimates. In the case of CERB, which has been extended to October 4th, the costs have more than tripled from an original estimate of $25-billion. Not good, cause for concern, and a clear sign that tweaks for both subsidies are needed. Finance Minister Morneau has all but assured Canadians that those tweaks are imminent.

The trouble with critiquing Trudeau’s response to COVID-19 based strictly on the financial costs goes to the heart of Wilde’s witty observation. The Conservatives, and some business leaders, may know the price of fighting the pandemic, but not its value. They criticize Morneau for being foggy on the timing of reining in expenditures, and vigorously re-starting the economy, as if he is withholding information.

Guess what? Planning during an unprecedented pandemic is one part facts and nine parts grasping at straws. The nature of an emergency, let alone a catastrophic one, is that you learn on the job. You see the problems more clearly only by being immersed in, and sometimes, overwhelmed by them. That means you make mistakes and adjust. You have your good days, and you have your bad ones. That’s why it’s so easy to criticize anyone in the charge of an emergency that descends like an invisible avalanche.

There are a lot of bad days until the tide turns.

Minister Morneau doesn’t have all the answers because no one does. He doesn’t know how much more it will cost to fight COVID-19; whether the virus will mutate; how bad a second wave expected in the autumn might be; and whether a vaccine will be developed sooner than later. No government can responsibly shift its priority from fighting the pandemic to economic recovery until more of these things are known. Patience, prudence, and science are the watchwords of the day. Not very sexy to be sure, but the wiser path.

The more people obsess about the sheer cost of these enormous emergency expenditures, made under extraordinary circumstances, the greater the pressure will be on the government to re-open the economy while this deadly virus is abroad in the land, without a vaccine. In other words, before the country is ready.

They have tried that in the United States with a quack president who believes that the answer to Covid-19 is the stock market, an injection of bleach, and opening all the schools as infections surge in more than thirty states.

Places like Arizona, Texas, and Florida are reaping the benefits of following “Cadet Bone Spur” over the cliff of COVID Denial: exploding infection rates; hospital intensive care units approaching overload; and front line workers burnt out trying to keep their patients alive without either the protective gear or resources to do so. And even with all that, some of the governors still refuse to mandate something as simple as wearing a protective mask. Instead, they preach rugged individualism.

Other countries too have taken a course far different from the one chosen by the Trudeau government. Sweden opted to do next to nothing to fight COVID-19 and kept its economy open. There was never a lockdown. The Swedish government reasoned that once enough people were infected with the virus, a so-called “herd immunity” would be achieved.

Instead, Sweden ended up with a COVID-19 death rate worse than its Nordic neighbours. The final irony of the Swedish approach? In the end, there was no economic benefit from trying to pretend it could be business as usual in the middle of a pandemic.

Finally, there is the experience of Brazil, where President Bolsonaro seems obsessed with out-Trumping the president of the United States. Bolsonaro’s approach to fighting COVID-19 has been to compare it to a small cold and laugh it off. Bolsonaro’s gaudy show of denial and misplaced machismo included downing hydroxychloroquine on social media and urging Brazilians to follow his example.

Hydroxychloroquine is the same anti-malarial drug touted by Trump in March. Since then, it has been banned as a treatment for COVID-19 by the European Union, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For all his bluster and bull, Bolsonaro himself has caught the “small cold” and is now trying to recover from COVID-19. Meanwhile, 1.7 million of his citizens are now infected and nearly 70,000 have died.

Bolsonaro, Trump, and governors in states like Texas and Florida knew the price of fighting the pandemic, and in defence of the market economy, decided not to pay it. So thousands of their citizens have—with their lives.

Canada has been far from perfect in its handling of the pandemic. Slow off the mark on testing, the virus got a foothold across the country, especially in Ontario and Quebec. The country was woefully short on medical equipment. As for long term care homes, elderly Canadians were shockingly exposed to the fatal virus, leaving this country with one of the worst death rates in the world amongst seniors.

But the Trudeau government has erred and corrected, learned and adjusted, ultimately realizing that no economy could be healthy or open without healthy citizens. Which is to say, Ottawa saw beyond the price of fighting COVID-19 to the absolute value of doing so.

As Wilde so keenly understood, sometimes cynicism is part of the problem.


Michael Harris is an award-winning author and journalist. 

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