The Liberal government’s $1-billion coronavirus response package is a good start to address some of the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on Canadian workers and businesses, economic and labour experts say.
But it is just that — a start — and more extensive help will be needed if the outbreak continues to spread.
“I think the federal government’s response today in terms of setting up a $1-billion fund to help combat the fallout of the COVID-19 virus is exactly what we needed to see,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist at Deloitte Canada.
“We don’t actually know how far the virus will spread and we don’t know how extensive the economic fallout will be, but we can actually see the risks growing on a day-by-day basis … what we’ve seen is a growing contagion around the around the world, and this poses greater economic risks.“
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday unveiled a plan that will see Ottawa give the provinces and territories half a billion dollars for medical supplies and beefing up their health care systems to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak.
It also includes $237 million in money for medical research to find a vaccine and get it to clinical trials as soon as possible.
There’s money as well for public education, training and foreign aid to countries tackling outbreaks of their own, as well as changes that remove the one-week waiting period before a worker can apply for Employment Insurance.
Alexander said the focus on the healthcare sector and the direct impacts of the outbreak was exactly what he expected to see given that there is still a lot of uncertainty about what the full impact will be on Canadian businesses and workers.
Until that becomes clear, he said he isn’t surprised that the government declined to take more aggressive action seen in some countries hit with much larger numbers of cases.
“I don’t think the government has actually figured it out all of the details, but I think they’re focusing on the immediate impacts.”
“You actually want to see some signs of how far things are spreading. So in, for example, in Italy, you have bigger measures. But those measures reflect the fact that the number of cases they have had and the contagion has run a lot farther. You can see that the quarantines that Italy is putting in place are going to have a very big impact on their economies. So it calls for bigger actions.“
Patrick Leblond, the Paul M. Tellier Chair on Business and Public Policy at the University of Ottawa, agreed.
“Certainly the Canadian situation is unlike the one in Italy. We’re not in a complete country shut down, which obviously would have huge economic impacts, where if people can’t leave their home, they can’t go to work, they can’t go to school,” he said. “Then it creates huge disruptions.”
Globally, there are more than 120,000 cases of the new coronavirus and more than 4,300 deaths.
In Canada, there are more than 100 cases and one death so far.
While the outbreak originated in China late last year, it has since spread to more than 100 countries and prompted the World Health Organization to declare the virus a pandemic.
Iran, South Korea and Italy have been among the countries hardest hit outside of China.
Italy, the epicentre of the European outbreak, put an unprecedented lockdown in place for all 60 million of its residents in a bid to contain the spread, which has paralyzed the country’s healthcare system and hit particularly hard in the north of the country.
In response, the Italian government has suspended mortgage payments and household bills in an attempt to reduce the financial hit to citizens.
In the U.S., which currently has about 1,000 cases, President Donald Trump has suggested a payroll tax cut to help businesses, while some economists have raised the prospect of lump-sum payments to citizens as a means to dull the financial sting.
Leblond said he doesn’t think those kinds of measures would happen in Canada unless things get a lot worse.
“Right now, most of the funds that have been announced are geared towards dealing with the health issues and then using existing programs to help individuals,” he said.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced on Wednesday the budget will be revealed on March 30.
And despite the support package, all eyes will be on that budget to see what new, larger measures the government may propose.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said he wants to see more substantial changes in the budget — but first, he’ll be looking to the First Minister’s meeting between Trudeau and the provincial and territorial leaders on Friday.
Specifically, he said he wants to see those leaders pledge that Canadians will not need to get a doctor’s note in order to claim the extended EI benefits.
“We have to find a way not of letting those individuals go to a doctor’s office,” he said of people infected with COVID-19, citing the risk they could spread the virus further if they are forced out of quarantine to get a medical note.
As well, Yussuff warned many vulnerable workers still will not benefit from getting rid of the waiting period for EI because they don’t qualify for it in the first place. He pointed to gig workers and service sector workers as among those who might not be able to hit the 600-hours-of-work criteria to qualify, and said he would like to see that criteria removed or significantly changed in the federal budget.
“If you want to help those people who might be impacted by self-quarantine or might get laid off, I think we have to find a way to make the system more fair.”