Tough COVID-19 questions: how long will, how long can this go on?

I hear a lot of people asking: how long will this go on?

What I wonder is: how long can this go on?

First, the “will” question.

The first bout of COVID-19 social distancing and self-isolation might still feel like one part novelty, one part dislocation, but it will wear really thin, really quickly, really. We were born to socialize, and this is, after all, Beautiful British Columbia.

This is spring’s first week and our inclinations will be to hit the park, the beach, the hiking trail, the golf course, the tennis court, the bike path, the seawall, the Grind, the Drive, whatever. Mostly, though, we can’t, which I’m afraid to say might be different from saying we won’t. Several weeks from now, the stir-craziness will be savage among the healthy among us.

Naturally we are wise to confine our outdoorsy moments to our front step or our backyard, to a patio at home and not the one we cherish at our favourite (but, sigh, still closed) restaurant. But: singles not dating? Campers not pitching tents? No picnics in the park? Sure we can not do that?

The best guess – guess with a capital G – is that the coronavirus will hit its peak in B.C. in June, endures in July and August, and keeps us creeped out about gatherings. Some authorities fret about a resumption in autumn. Many predict three or four social distancing stints.

Beyond logistics, can any of us claim we will not fall prey to serious psychological problems from the stress of seclusion and solitary work? Isn’t it already happening? Wasn’t the hoarding of supplies a precursor to fear contagion?

But the bigger question is the “can” question. How long can this go on?

The pandemic has already clobbered our economic prospects. That the federal government earmarked last week $82 billion in emergency relief is telltale of symptoms to come. Provinces and cities still have to weigh in with support, but Ottawa’s deeper pockets will be dug and dug and dug into. Spain, after all, disbursed nearly 20% of its gross domestic product to its calamity; Canada is around the 3% level.

So, even with the shovelling of money, at what stage can we afford to stay isolated and inactive and not engender a true meltdown?

We live in a society of instant gratification, not enduring denial of it. We are social animals with few lone wolves. Our businesses have cultivated us with access to quick delivery, abundant choice and easy refunds and exchanges.

In this environment of tempting online commerce and government underwriting, consumers cannot be quelled, but many bricks-and-mortar businesses can be. It will not take long to take large holes out of our communities, to make permanent the staff reductions in our stores and restaurants, unless there is some sort of accommodation of the seclusion – and that doesn’t seem in the cards.

Small business is acutely vulnerable. It bears ridiculous rents and taxes, excessive regulations, a shortage of labour due to unaffordability and global behemoths as competitors. Take two or three months out of their lives and you take out their lives. If governments can’t see, own and act upon their share of the problem and its foundations, they have a death wish on the sector.

Larger businesses, too, are suffering a surfeit of silly impediments to investment, layers of taxes and virtue signalling tolls – hardships in normal circumstances. Under this new normal, this can’t continue. As we feed and nurture those in need, action must be taken toward a reset of government’s size and seizure in the post-virus period. This won’t be the last coronavirus.

We are into a period in which the joy of living in a great city is deeply diminished. The head of our province’s restaurant association told me last week he expects one-fifth of the sector to vanish. We need businesses to survive for our post-virus identity as a community;  for them to do so, governments have to stop seeing them as an ATM.

Think ahead, governments: the geese will not lay the golden eggs for a long time after this ends. Private-sector growth is an oxymoron, but public-sector growth is alive and well. How long can that go on?

Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.