COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the world since its outbreak almost four years ago. As of August 2023, over 760 million cases and almost 7 million deaths have occurred. Canada has been hit quite hard, suffering over 4.6 million cases and over 50,000 deaths. While this pandemic seems to be ending, that does not mean another one is not on the horizon. COVID-19 has shown that pandemics are a pressing global issue. This article will explore the economic and social consequences inflicted by COVID-19 and highlight key areas in which Canada can mitigate future pandemics.
Historically, pandemics have been associated with a decline in economic activity. A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that during the 1918 influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic, for example, the average country experienced a reduction of six percent in real per capita GDP and eight percent in private consumption. This trend is consistent with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has fundamentally damaged the world economy. In Canada, the restriction imposed on economic activities, such as lockdowns, decreased GDP per capita by 1.3 percent from 2020 to 2021.
Financial institutions also warn of the future consequences that the pandemic might bring. In its economic prospect report, the World Bank Group acknowledged that advanced economies would likely experience a slowdown from 2.5 percent in 2022 to 0.5 percent in 2023. In addition, the pandemic will also have long-term effects on developing and emerging economies, which are expected to see a GDP level of 6 percent below pre-pandemic years by the end of 2024.
The economic downturn of the pandemic led to significant job losses worldwide. In 2022, the UN estimated that the global job market had 52 million fewer jobs than in pre-COVID times. In addition, job loss has affected a disproportionate group of workers, specifically women, younger workers, urban workers, and workers with lower levels of educational attainment, who have found it more challenging to recover than others.
Job insecurity impacted livelihoods as people lost vital sources of income. A 2020 survey by Ottawa Public Health found that 19 percent of Ottawa residents faced issues paying for basic necessities. Furthermore, the groups that were most affected by this were found to be visible minorities and people with disabilities. Pandemics have been shown to change lifestyles, work and social interactions, and widen inequalities.
Pandemics can also cause widespread social unrest. This was manifested in predominantly right-wing rhetoric and actions against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines in Canada. A particularly notable incident was the 2022 “Freedom Convoy,” which gained international attention for a series of protests and blockades it carried out. Organizers and key figures of the protests asserted that their main goal was to support truck drivers affected by the vaccine mandate. In reality, evidence suggests that the protests had strong elements of right-wing leadership and motivation. Pandemic restrictions gave Canadians more time for social media engagement, allowing them to come into contact with right-wing ideology and conspiracy theories. These populist ideas and conspiracy theories allowed far-right groups to broaden their support base, further dividing society on critical issues like vaccines.
The Future – Proactive Measures
The best way to stop a future pandemic is to learn from the lessons of COVID-19. Many experts believed Canada missed opportunities early on to blunt the pandemic’s effects. Of particular concern was the government’s sluggish implementation of quarantine measures. One of the biggest issues was Canada’s lack of strict border measures and stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic. In addition, experts also criticized the government’s poor response to the emergence of asymptomatic cases. In the future, Canada should look to the actions of countries like South Korea and New Zealand, which took aggressive measures, such as tightening travel and mandatory quarantines, early on in the pandemic.
Another element of Canada’s response that needs to be reexamined is the coordination between provinces and the federal government. The 1867 Constitution Act stipulates that the provinces be responsible for delivering health services while the federal government deals with national coordination, quarantine, and other issues of national scope. Thus, the provinces generally took dissimilar approaches to tackling COVID-19, in contrast to federal attempts to coordinate the national effort, leading to inconsistent management of the pandemic. For example, despite the proven effectiveness of physical distancing, only eight provinces adopted the measure to limit gatherings to less than 250 people. In addition, given that long-term care centres had some of the highest COVID-19 fatality rates, only six provinces implemented strict measures, stopping employees from working in different facilities to limit transmission.
Resolving public health crises is a complicated process that must consider a multitude of factors and medical opinions. However, examining public health decisions retrospectively can certainly increase Canada’s preparedness against a future pandemic.
Despite being caught off guard in the early days of COVID-19, Canada did a relatively decent job of attenuating its harmfulness. Those restrictions the provincial governments did implement contributed to lower national infection rates and death counts compared to other G10 countries. The federal government also swooped in to provide financial support for Canadian citizens thrown out of work by the pandemic through initiatives such as the Jobs and Growth Fund and the Canada Workers Benefit. Canada has also pledged to fund the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization to prepare for the next pandemic.
Despite these proclamations to fight COVID-19 and future pandemics, it is hard to tell, as of this moment, if the pledges of today will be followed through with in the future. This is not an isolated concern, as even the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies acknowledged that many countries may not be ready for the next pandemic, citing a lack of preparedness systems. This is both a resource issue and one of wanting a return to normalcy.
This same pandemic-related fatigue was a significant issue after the influenza pandemic of 1918 when politicians and citizens pushed to relieve restrictions. Like all pandemics, this one will eventually come to an end. To be ready for the next one, Canada must remember COVID-19, its consequences, the measures that mitigated them, and how these might be enhanced.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.