Government, many businesses must prepare for post-pandemic markets changed beyond recognition

It is still foggy ahead on the pandemic road, but already we are starting to look in the rear-view mirror. It is becoming coulda, woulda, shoulda time.

Might we have done things differently initially and along the way? Of course. But the largest questions concern what’s ahead, so it’s not time for the shoulder check.

The most substantive new dissonance on how the federal government has handled COVID-19 comes from signatories to a letter emanating from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank that has positioned itself at times, but not always, to the mild right of the political spectrum.

The institute has written the prime minister to say the lockdown has been too lengthy, the reopening too tepid, and the focus on the economy too indifferent.

This is a theme many Canadians would support right now, given that much of the country is hardly hammered by the coronavirus – except its impact on how we work and conduct business. But there would be places – and Vancouver and its surrounding communities are likely some of them – in which the go-slow tactics by government are accepted.

Still, the institute suggests the framing of the pandemic has “morphed subtly” from flattening the curve to preventing anyone from being infected. Research indicates people aren’t yet into the idea that risk is the new normal, but the institute says the “goalposts” are being shifted by government to suggest the economy won’t recover for a year, or until a vaccine is ready – something with incalculable costs.

The letter to Justin Trudeau argues that the debate has been positioned between the “selfless” protection of health and the “selfish” desire for economic activity, The reality, the institute insists, is much more greatly nuanced to afford the opportunity for both commerce and commitment to well-being.

Indeed, the signatories argue that we are not focused on the many related health issues beyond the coronavirus that the shutdown has affected: the delayed surgeries, the stress-related physical ailments, and of course the effects on our mental well-being.

But the more important element of the letter suggests we are ill-prepared to take advantage of the gradual reopening because the recent shutdown has squandered the opportunity.

We lack a national test program to understand a truer tabulation of the virus, access to routine tests to track our progress or problems, or enough personal protective equipment to mitigate risk.

Instead, they write – and this is where I notice hackles get raised on social media – the government has been focused on devising programs spending hundreds of billions of dollars to compensate people to not work instead of spending on things to safely bring them back.

If there has been an incentivized idleness, it is an unintended consequence. No government would see its interests served with an enduring enticement for people to stay off the job.

We all know people who could use much more, we likely know people who could be fine without the help. No one suggested these programs would be precise provisions, no one knew that the country would be in for such expenditure, but we did agree at the time that good enough could not be the enemy of perfection in the time we were in. Expect there to be efforts to wean any temporary advantage-taking from us.

Remember, it was wise to initially assuage fear of job and income loss for people and businesses, but there is another phase of reignition of activity upon which Ottawa has been far less motivational, and this is the important part of the discussion.

True, to date governments have been better at stopping and helping than starting and helping.

Provinces – like ours today – are bringing back business under stringent conditions without systemic support to nurture them through what will be start-and-stop-and-start steps to get fractions and increments back.

Many businesses will find markets that bear faint resemblance to the ones they were forced to abandon only months ago, so it will be necessary for the ingenuity of government to emerge to work with firms on their salvation. It will not be enough for governments to say they got everyone this far with support and now it is time for the market to determine who survives.

If anything, this next phase is a bigger test of our political leadership.

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