It’s been two and a half months since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic; infections and deaths will continue until a vaccine is found. Economists and global thinkers may disagree on what the new world will look like, but they’re aligned on one thing: it’s not too soon for us to start thinking about the world we hope to live in when we finally reach the other side of this crisis.
We’ve learned some important lessons already.
The quality of government, particularly its leader, is critical
Covid-19 gave Albertans the opportunity to compare two very different governments, the provincial government led by Jason Kenney and the federal government led by Justin Trudeau.
Kenney’s government hung back waiting for the feds to step into the breach with social programs to ease the suffering of Albertans. It also doubled down on its pre-Covid agenda, attacking social services, particularly public education and healthcare, while the pandemic gained purchase. Particularly odious was the health minister’s refusal to reverse his decision to cut physician compensation until it became obvious the UCP would lose rural seats.
While the Alberta government was creating havoc and heartache, the federal government delivered a dizzying array of social programs to help Canadians weather the economic upheaval caused by the virus. (It goes without saying that the Notley government’s response would be more akin to that of the federal government, than Kenney’s government).
As we move through the pandemic, we need to consider what kind of leader would be best suited to navigating the rapidly changing, and often dangerous, new world—one who is dogmatic and inflexible or one who grasps the issues and responds quickly and effectively.
We need visionaries
The economist, Mohamed El-Erian, is concerned governments are defaulting to remedies (like bailouts for airlines and oil companies) that worked in the past, when they should be exploring new remedies for crises we’ve never experienced before. Instead of financial models that keep zombie companies alive in zombie markets, El-Erian says governments should consider an economic model that relies on productivity and people.
He argues for a more thoughtful approach and suggests we investigate economic theories like universal basic income and modern monetary theory (MMT) that were once considered impractical.
Given Kenney’s demand that the federal government bailout the energy industry to the tune of $20 to $30 billion, it’s unlikely he or his government and its advisors have the imagination necessary to consider any remedy other than one that props up Alberta’s one-trick pony fossil fuel economy.
As Alberta moves into the new world, we will need leaders who are willing to pressure-test old economic assumptions, instead of defaulting to the path that brought us to this economic cul-de-sac in the first place.
The economy does not take precedence over society
Remember when the UCP said we must be prosperous before we can be a compassionate caring society? Covid-19 showed us the opposite is true. When the economy ground to a halt, the social safety net and the community reaching out to its members helped us survive.
And yet, Kenney’s faith in the preeminence of economic prosperity is unshaken.
Despite the fact Alberta has not flattened the curve, the Kenney government is reopening the economy starting May 4. This means workers with legitimate concerns about catching the virus will have to report to work.
Nowhere is this more unconscionable than at Alberta’s meat packing plants. The Cargill plant and the JBS plant together are responsible for 42% of all of Alberta’s covid cases, including two deaths. And yet the Kenney government is allowing them to operate.
We need to decide what kind of government we want: one that puts the economy above society or one that recognizes the importance of life as well as livelihood?
What we can do now
The pandemic exposed the stark reality of inequality, underfunded public programs and the importance of a social safety net in calamitous times.
We will overcome the Covid-19 crisis, but looming on the horizon is an even bigger crisis, that of climate change.
Yes, it feels overwhelming, but as Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN, said: when we think the problems are too big and we’re too small to do anything about them, we can make a difference by “shrinking the change”, by picking a manageable piece of the bigger problem and working on it.
In this case we can work with Rachel Notley’s NDP to ensure Jason Kenney’s UCP do not form government in 2023.
We need leaders and governments who are ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges, not the battles of yesteryear.
*Comments by Mohamed El-Erian and Samantha Power are from the Munk Dialogues: World After Covid19 https://munkdebates.com/dialogues