A progressive approach to COVID-19 recovery

Ed Broadbent and Rick Smith: Now is the time for ‘bold experimentation’ to address the needs of Canadians and our economic and social rights

Ed Broadbent and Rick Smith are the Chair and Executive Director, respectively, of the Broadbent Institute

Our current health and economic crisis can be a catalyst for renewal. Or, it will be a dangerous and misleading reason to return to “normal”—one characterized by deep and neglectful inequality.

The miserable state of long-term care homes is one example: the product of years of regulatory neglect that are now  proving so tragically fatal to many of their residents. Prior to the pandemic, 3.5 million Canadians could not afford the drugs they needed and 6 million avoided seeing the dentist because of the cost. With soaring unemployment, millions more have been added to these numbers as people lose access to their job-linked insurance plans.

Enormous numbers of Canadians remain financially precarious because they can’t access the out-dated EI programme, and nearly 1.5 million of the unemployed  can’t access either EI or the CERB. In many places, the virus is  exacerbating existing inequities of race and gender.  These are but a few instances that media have brought to the attention of Canadians. There are many more.

READ MORE: The end of economic growth

Before the COVID-19 crisis, there was already a crisis of deep inequality.  The goal now is not to return to this flawed state of affairs but to push for a fair recovery and fundamental change. Without the strongest of pushes from organized progressives there is no guarantee that this will occur.  Indeed, more conservative forces are already using the virus to mobilize renewed support for their agenda and, in some jurisdictions, the virus has even been used as an excuse to solidify the grip of authoritarian regimes.

Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, and its widespread impact on various aspects of our lives, there are many ways of responding that could have a dramatic and positive impact. Over the next few weeks and months, as priorities are winnowed, a COVID-19 recovery strategy, governed by progressive principles and values, would look something like the following :

1. Prioritize the needs of people. We need to work with employers to save and create jobs, but the focus should be on bettering the lives of individual Canadians. Financial aid to corporations should be much more conditional than in past rescue packages. Any recovery must ensure by law that public dollars are not diverted into exorbitant executive compensation packages, stock buybacks or increased dividend pay-outs.

2. Reinforce people’s economic and social rights. Temporary fixes must be changed into longer term reforms, such as reconfigured income supports to supplement EI; extension of the scope of public health care to home care, long-term care homes and universal public pharmacare; and the implementation of a “decent work” agenda with paid sick days and liveable wages.

3. Public investment. With families and corporations deep in debt even before the crisis, and with some sectors (such as tourism and oil and gas) very unlikely to recover quickly, public investment will have to drive recovery. Such investment should be focused on job-rich areas that deliver on our collective goals, like green infrastructure (renewables, energy conservation, public infrastructure) and affordable housing.

4. Transition to greater national self-sufficiency in some sectors. The global economy is here to stay, but we need to rebuild Canadian productive capacity to meet key needs such as food security and medical supplies rather than rely exclusively on global markets.

5. Spend what it takes. The Bank of Canada is providing the resources we need short term to support Canadians. A longer-term public investment program intended to address income inequality will also require radical tax reform, including taxation of wealth.

In implementing all of the above, dogmatism should be avoided. Franklin Roosevelt said it best: we need “bold persistent experimentation” and we need to clear the necessary space for governments to adopt this temperament.

As in our past, it is progressive ideas that will lead to bettering the lives of Canadians and to an improved future for all our communities.  Let’s get to it.

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